Perception, Power and Race in UK Arts

– a 9 part video critique and commentary of UK arts and its issues of ‘diversity’ – Case study Exhibit B

 exhobit b posterI have never embarked on a homespun project like this before. Filmed in my front room over a week with shifting light. As the week went on I became a little obsessed with the content.  I had been frustrated and concerned about  the hiccups in  my artistic vocational trajectory and what my next moves were as an artist in the UK for a while. I felt I had been moving laterally for a few too many years. In fact, in the draft box of my wordpress account I had an edit of a blog post called “Race in the Arts” started in 2012  attempting to articulate my troubled sentiments on being an artist of colour in the UK. Then in 2014 came ‘Exhibit B’ and the #BoycottTheHumanZoo campaign. What I had needed was an aggressive catalyst and the events unfolding around the campaign were certainly that.
(If you don’t know the art installation Exhibit b, take a look at the Video 2, Part 2 – The Set Up below).

While making these videos, a couple of birds were slain – a) as the talking to camera became more comfortable, I gained confidence and I was able to clear my head of some of the trying times of working freelance in the arts (video 2, part 2), b) why the arts is tainted with what reveals itself to be part of systemic racism (video 3, part 4; video 5, Part 7 & video 5, part 8), and c) how as a storyteller, I could reveal how the stories told about peoples of African descent  are impacting on me, fellow artists (and arts audiences) in ways not so obvious, on all levels of society,  creating either tension or solidarity between us. (video 3, part 4)

Why did I make this?
2NdA2sbUThis post has a back story. Initially it was meant to be 500 word article for Index For Censorship offering another side to the mainstream media representation of the protesting #BoycottTheHumanZoo campaign to halt Exhibit B. This voice was not heard in the light it needed to be (video 4, part 7)

Censorship and Freedom of expression of Bailey, the creator and director of Exhibit B,  took precedent over the rights of a group who have been misrepresented for decades in contemporary arts, media, education, and/or anywhere a story can be told about us, as peoples of African descent (Video 5, Part 8). Instead of a text blog post,  an episodical video would provide a more effective medium for a lot of intertwining realities needing to be articulated that are usually shut down. And to hopefully provoke healthy debate.

For nearly 23,000 people  to  co-sign the #BoycottTheHumanZoo petition and  say ‘no’ to one of the London city’s largest arts institutes, a considered critique of all the events around Exhibit B  needed to happen,  Why the arts is such a controversial space for dissecting societies ails, especially where race, gender and sexual politics are involved, cannot be not be studied  at face value. The energy behind the petition highlighted the UK’s desire to move beyond notions of empire in the arts. These videos take direct reference from Exhibit B attempting to story-tell the brutal Black African experience, but the over-arching tenet of them is to highlight europe’s legacy of superior colonial interaction with Peoples of Colour overall through literature and and other arts media.

When I began I was fearful that this was just a cathartic process of purging bad creative encounter memories, but as I engaged in more conversations with fellow artists it became glaringly clear, I was not speaking from an individual perspective with  chip on my shoulder as a black person. Part of me wishes I was. That way, I could give myself a pep talk into finding ways to ‘(wo)man up’, adapt, knuckle down and  make good living. I just had to crack the code.
Well, it was talking to others that brought me to the conclusion that there is a flaw in the code. And like any wormhole, the more I began to write text for this, the more layers there were (and still are) to unpack. The roots of resistance to *not* talking about race in the arts are deep, and the vaults the conversation resides in is dusty and need airing.
I start tentatively but as I went on I become more definite that I must complete the set.

I call this collection of videos Perception, Power and Race in UK Arts, assessing the network of reputation, kudos and word of mouth culture that fuels the job market for working artists. The crux of success lies in how people talk about you, and meritocracy often flies out the window in the arts world, for marginalised groups, people of colour. How you are spoken about is going to mean a whole other level of existence in the art world, nt just on an individual level, but as a group of peoples (video 4, Parts 6 & 7).
Hopefully these videos will give others a better insight into what people of colour experience in the arts industry.

The videos don’t have to be watched in order, mix it up, but it helps to get a clear idea of how the arts is not immune to systemic racism and how the ‘diversity’ has become a red herring nurturing lip service and tick box quota creation.



Part 1: Intro – who what why where when
Content: A brief breakdown of the  videos content and structure


PART 2: Reasons
Content: The Set Up.
Brief description of Exhibit B.
Why #BoycottTheHumanZoo came about.
The underlying  issues – is it or isn’t it racist?
More answers please. – what are your intentions Bailey, Barbican, UK Arts Intl?

Relevant Links
Deep Racism: The Forgotten History Of Human Zoos
When Humans were put in Zoos
I cannot post links to Bailey. He has airtime in abundance.

PART 3: The Money Helps. The Money Hurts. (@ 6:38 mins)
Content: Budget censorship. Resource censorship.
The Mayor, custodian of culture of London, decides
Cultural production of African descent

Relevant links
Boris Slashes Black History Month Funds to £10,000
Boris Scraps Rise Festival
UpRise Festival is born in response
Black and minority ethnic arts: the unfairest funding cuts of all?
Boris Johnson is right to cut funds for Black History Month, an event that provokes contempt and racism
Flora and Fauna Laws affecting Indigenous First Nation Peoples
“The (African) Three-Fifths Compromise” augmented southern political power.


Content: distorted perception censors Black UK art. Assimilation censorship.
The “Diversity” mission – Where its going wrong.
#WeHeartArt that much – sacrifices for race

Relevant Links
Losing the race: Is theatre embracing black stories?
Exhibit B, the human zoo, is a grotesque parody – boycott it
Sir Lenny Henry to front black british theatre series for BBC ( after 30 years in the business. The first of its kind in 2015. Progress. Slow but progress. Is it enough?)
Cultural Neglect – Gaylene Gould at the D-Word
The Spectator – Don’t criticize Janet Suzman for saying theatre’s ‘a white invention’
DeObia  Oparei OPen Letter – Theatre & the myth of White Supremacy as perpetuated by Dame Janet Suzman
Dame Janet Suzman’s response to DeObia Oparei’s  open letter Middle Class People Dominate the Arts

Part 5: Body Brutal (@ 6:44 mins)
Content: The value and consumption of the black body
Contemporary context of the very existence of Exhibit B – the ‘Climate of Brutal’

Relevant Links
Origins of Black Body Politics
21st century disposability of Black Life #ThinkingFerguson
The climate – US 1 Unarme African American men killed by  US police
The climate – US 2 – Unarmed African American women killed by the US police
The climate – UK 1- The Mark Duggan inquest
The climate – UK 2 – More black people in Jail in UK proportionately than in US
Book Review: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Never Abolished Human Zoos – They’re Digital Now


Part 6: The Fathers of Bad Language
Content: Perception distorted through language censorship .
The birth of 21st century racist rhetoric.
Historical contextualising of the Black  African presence in literature
The power of story-telling about race

Relevant Links
Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation America
British Link and The West Indian Proslavery Argument
Eugenics: the academy’s complicity – Dr Francis Galton
Eugenics at UCL: We inherited Galton
Positive and Negative Eugenics
The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism  & Edward Long
Filling Up the Space Between Mankind and Ape: Racism, Speciesism and the Androphilic Ape – Edwards Long

Content: Language, media  and perception censorship.
The propoaganda.
Silencing and occupation of airtime. Spatial censorship.
How the campaign was talked about in the the media.
Do #BlackLivesMatter in the UK arts?

Relevant Links
#BlackLivesMatter campaigner vs Fox news agenda – the attempted shaming on Deray. Notice the divisive strategy of pitting one person of colour against another and removing the insitagter (the white interveiwer form the picture. Visually this prepetuates a narrative of confusion and disharmony in teh black community – provoked by the colonial status quo
Barbican’s Exhibit B closed down by protesters branding show ‘racist’
Exhibit B: artists must have the right to shock
Neil LaBute among writers tackling freedom of expression in new collection
The Scots Man – Exhibit B Censorship


Part 8: Can You Hear Me?
Content: How not to negotiate when in deadlock
Perception about who ‘owns’ the story. Ownership censorship.
Power, entitlement and privilege.
Intentional listening.

Relevant Links
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”
Literary Colonization between Joseph Conrad and Edward Morgan Forster
£20 Spectacle
Dismissing the Protest against Exhibit B is Shutting Down The Very Conversation About Race That Was Intended.
Exhibit B Protest: We Fought For Our Dignity
Barbican shut down Bailey’s offensive ‘Human Zoo’

Part 9: Conclusions Solutions? (5:57 mins)
Content: Thank you, Intentional Listening with intent to purposeful action. Truth-seeking, integrity and resilience in the race conversation in the arts


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