The human zoo and the masturbation of white guilt.

So as you have probably heard. An ‘artist’ named Brett Bailey thinks it is creative and innovative to showcase black humans in a mock zoo for the entertainment of white ‘liberals’ at the Barbican centre. Some people, including the poet Lemn Sissay, have mustered all kinds of defenses for the forthcoming exhibition: free speech, artistic expression, promotion of dialogue about serious subjects, blah blah blah. Some of these reasonings may even appear sound at first glance, until we examine them in the context of the actual world we live in, not the fairy world of a certain kind of white liberal - and their black and brown servants - the same world inhabited by humanitarian imperialisms and post racial posturing.

 For those who are unaware, black humans were indeed literally exhibited in zoos, yes zoos, next to chimpanzees and other primates in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is partly the origin of the monkey chants and banana skins that are still all to often aimed at black sport figures today. These zoos formed part of the western propaganda that justified bringing civilization to Africa - that is, killing 10 million plus in the Congo, practically exterminating the Herero and Nama peoples and installing apartheid regimes in much of southern Africa, which is to say nothing of the countless millions shipped across the Atlantic, or the induced Irish and Indian famines.  

 This 21st century recreation of the very real human zoos is disgusting, deplorable and aims to do none of the things its supporters claim it does. I’ll explain why.

 This exhibition, is of course, aimed at the Barbicans primary audience: a certain kind of white people with disposable income. If its aim is to promote dialogue, with whom are these people going to be dialoging in the privileged space of the Barbican so rarely accessed by the wider community? More importantly, what is the psychological profile of the kind of person that would pay £20 a pop to see black humans exhibited in cages?

 What is the make-up and behaviour of such individuals? If you are a person of color who is remotely aware of yourself, you have encountered them before and will know their kind well. The kind of ‘liberal’ that likes to tell us how we should feel about our history, like the woman who arrogantly messaged me on twitter - not to ask my reasons - but to let me know that she (the important person) was ‘disappointed’ that I was supporting the petition (below), the kind of person like my year 4 primary school teacher who informed me that William Wilberforce ‘stopped slavery all by himself’ (white men are that omnipotent you know). The kind of mind that will leave this exhibition (presuming it still goes ahead) congratulating themselves on ‘how far we’ve come’. The question is who is their ‘we’?

 Do the proponents of this kind of ‘art’ have a history of making common cause with the very real struggles against racist Euro-American imperialism that the south is still fighting (not least of all in Baileys native South Africa) or would they prefer to engage in masturbating their guilt by seeing black bodies tied, bondaged, broken, powerless? It is that last word, Power that brings us squarely to crux of the matter. Many will actually get a sadistic kick from inert black bodies so pornographically disempowered. This is a common theme; I can’t help but be reminded of the Swedish minister of culture eating the clitoris of a coon cake made by another ‘artist’, this too was meant to provoke discussion, or so our liberal friends told us.

Mr. Bailey’s piece of racist propaganda is cut from that same shitty cloth. As for the minds of the black people allowing their bodies to be used in this way, we could write whole a book and many indeed have, try Fanon for starters.

 Yes art is supposed to be about free expression, but in reality that free expression is always bounded by the political realities of the day. To offer an analogy, would a German artist ever be given a platform as large as the Barbican to make money from displaying real live Jewish bodies piled on one another in a mock gas chamber, would this be considered art? Those who think that comparison is an exaggerated one are either ignorant of historical facts or think African lives are worth less. If this is about promoting a discussion of colonial history why not include ‘strung out on opium’ Chinese people? Why? Because contemporary Chinese power would render any attempt to display Chinese people as lifeless victims quite laughable and thus would not offer the same cheap kicks.

 Just to confirm his complete lack of understanding of the issues at hand Mr. Bailey offered the following liberal hodgepodge to explain his thinking

 ‘Exhibit B is not apiece about black histories made for white audiences. It is a piece about humanity; about a system of dehumanisation that affects everybody within society, regardless of skin colour, ethnic or cultural background, that scours the humanity from the 'looker' and the 'looked at' "

 You see, it’s not about black/white relations at all its about the looker and the looked at. Please, ever so kindly, fuck off.

If ‘artists’ like Mr. Bailey really want to be provocative and create discussion around the subjects of European colonialism and genocidal white supremacy I can think of a million more interesting places they could choose to start. Perhaps the Barbican would consider an exhibition with live white people used as dummies to pose as the many thousands of slave masters and overseers our ancestors majestically hacked to death during the Haitian Revolution? Or perhaps they would consider revising the myth of Gandhi’s uncontested pre-eminence in the Indian independence struggle and instead erect monuments to Bhagat Singh, Queen Rani and others who used the coloniser’s favorite tool -violence of course - against him in their search for freedom? Or to bring the point back to Mr. Bailey - a white South African - directly, why not make art of the dead and mutilated white bodies that Africans killed in the anti-colonial struggles that gained the limited modicums of independence that former ‘settler colonial’ African states have today?

How liberating would it be (especially for white people) to be forced to so viscerally engage with the reality that the freedoms black and brown people enjoy today did not come as a result of Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, or World War 2 but rather from the blood that our own ancestors courageously shed, fighting Europeans with significantly greater military might, as well as their own domestic oppressors and collaborators. We did not, contrary to Hollywood, sit around waiting for white saviors.

 Or perhaps, images that do not re-enforce white power do not float the boat of the aforementioned ‘liberal’ types. Perhaps they are not content with the still dominant, international image of Africa; as a disease-ridden, war torn wasteland inhabited by lifeless black skins? Perhaps they are not content with the mass incarceration that serves to privilege them or the black bodies being gunned down by police on a weekly basis in the US and elsewhere? They just need to take it one step further and have niggers back where they really belong, in cages and chains?

The bottom line is this.

The Barbican like almost all other major arts institutions in this country receives public money and thus has a remit to serve the ‘public good’. So if you agree that this proposed exhibition oversteps that remit of ‘public good’ and delves into the realm of orientalist white guilt/power masturbation that will have absolutely no useful outcomes and will certainly not empower the millions of descendants of victims of European colonization living here in London, then please sign this petition and let Mr. Bailey take his foolishness back to where he came from.


56 responses
Brilliantly accurate, lets stop this happening. The petition only takes 40 seconds. Tell a friend.
Great piece. Let's stop this show.
Stop this racist show
Signed and shared on facebook. I couldn't agree more with this piece!
I suspect Bailey can't jump off the bandwagon that he and other white South African artist first climbed onto in the early 90's. Question is, which if any of these artist is really authentic representing the black perspective. Time for soul searching I would suggest and time to evaluate the passengers on the bandwagon.
Loved this piece. I hope it speaks to others as it did me. Everyone needs to sign.
Brilliant read.
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Ultimately all this exhibition does is make a white south African man who profited from an apartheid system rich and famous for putting black people in chains. That's it. That's all. It's not a 'comment' on a human zoo, it IS a human zoo.
A great analysis looking at the 'exhibit', the alleged 'artist' and the public funded institution enabling this offensive mess to go ahead.
Stop the show!
Stop this
Stop the show!
It’s art, pure and simple. I saw the show recently and it is not dehumanizing at all but made me realize the extent of blacks suffering. Everyone should have the opportunity to see it. Mohammed Kamran commenting above about how lets sign the petition and get the show banned, what do you say about your people (ISIS) beheading two white journalists?
This needs to stop
Great piece.
This has no place in this world
Richard H to compare the beheading of two seems more traumatising to you, but the mass rapes and murders and pillaging of black soles that's okay that's artistic that is a stupid comment by a small minded person clearly.
Richard H LOL. ''Your people'. Well YOUR PEOPLE have been committing atrocities all over the world for five centuries and there isn't one race that can claim that they've committed genocide on every continent against almost every culture apart from yours. So who are the real savages now?
Let's stop this
This is absolutely disgusting I just can't believe that this kind of barbaric idea can be show cased in the to london. It should be stopped
If ExhibitB is a re-enactment and an exorcism for the purpose of shifting meaning and elevate spirits then it can only be completed and probably effective if it should 'force' audience participation along the lines of the good old reflexes from that era. As it apparently stands, just half of the re-enactment may ring 'true' and the Barbican is by far the worst place in London to ask the descendants of the bourgeoisie what they used to find 'entertaining' and 'what they were thinking' ! Strange enough though, after so many years of 'black issues' at the top of London arts mainstream, still a number of black figures are not happy with 'the guilty conscience offerings' concocted by mainstream white agenda - and probably rightly so. As repeatedly seen - registering with the mainstream doesn't make for good 'black art' but for white politics and human circus. And there's a big lesson in that for a BME such as myself, who as a group still crave and still fail to register in the mainstream, unless to be demonised by the political establishment. I would ask the guy here... why so many blacks such as himself crave the mainstream? that drips a lot from this piece above.. Yet ultimately such 'limited' privilege breeds complacency. Has black culture so easily forgotten that it was more fecund in the underground?... For the sake or sarcasm and since I might pass as white too, one can argue that at least a 'recent' African dictator kept a far worse human menagerie (Idi Amin) - so ExhibitB is by in some respect benign and can be called art!
Any humans on here, or is everyone just a colour?
Thank god this shit was cancelled !
This man is full of hate and that feeling blurs his intelligence. How can he be so furious about an artist who's denouncing the horror of slavery? Who's denouncing the present horror, with the migrants and refugees being treated like cattle by most European countries?
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