'What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them' – Brett Bailey
Growing up in South Africa, I have been viewed many art exhibitions and creative productions which focus on race relations and the history of black communities in the country. It goes without saying that some works have stuck with me more than others. The most memorable have generally been works which deal with personal experiences of struggle and don’t try to speak for the struggle in general. The other that has maintained a spot in my memory is Brett Bailey’s The Exhibits (shown under: Exhibits A, B and C), which has continually challenged what I understand of artistic agency. astounding prevalence of white artists creating works which attempt to heal the wounds of the oppressed with their own interpretations of their suffering. In discussion with these exhibitions and their reception, the question artistic agency in representing the black experience under Apartheid and colonial rule will be investigated.
South African artist, Brett Bailey’s exhibitions: Exhibit A B & C, were intended to challenge the live ethnographic exhibitions of various racial and indigenous groups which occurred in Europe up until the middle of the twentieth century. The conception of the work stemmed from the interest in how racial stereotypes have been perpetuated since the earliest colonial conquests. One of the ways in which racial difference was fetishised in history were in human zoos; events whereby individuals from various colonial backgrounds displayed to entertain through their ‘exotic’ difference to European patrons. The last of case of these was a Belgian ‘Kongorama’, a dioramic display of over five hundred Congolese men, women and children at the 1958 world fair. Intended to promote Belgian pride in its relationship with its colony, but the result was one of voyeuristic amusement for white patrons.
Bailey’s attempt to challenge this was to subvert the idea of the human zoo by using live human subjects to actively look back at the spectator and Europe’s racist colonial past. The paid subjects, or “found objects” as Bailey shockingly defines, perform his interpretation of these spectacles where the spectators, one-by-one, become complicit in the objectification and humiliation of the colonial “subjects” (O’Mahony, 2014). The actors are supposed to return the gaze and therefore express a power that would not have been awarded to those in similar positions in the past. From hiring a slowly revolving stand-in for Sara Baartman to “a black woman chained to the bed of a French colonial officer”, Bailey objectifies (not only) the black female body, but the black body in general in order to critique the colonial objectification of black bodies (O’Mahony, 2014). Thus his attempt to subvert the racist objectification of black bodies still objectifies them in a racist way. The question raised by one of the paid participants explains such sentiments; “How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?”(O’Mahony, 2014). The fact that the exhibitions take the form of a colonial exhibition, props and all, but do not adequately challenge the way black bodies continue to be objectified is worth considering too. Is it enough to reinvent a horrific event or situation in order to deal with the pain which resulted from it? The sheer response from the public answers this question with a picketed no. the campaign which ensued as a result of the showing of Exhibition B at The Vaults in 2014 (commissioned by the Barbican) is testament to the fact that the work was clearly not designed to be for those represented, but about them (Farrington, 2019). One of the issues raised in the campaign was that the piece offered no “positive social outcome” and that Bailey’s work perpetuated negative stereotypes of African people (Farrington, 2019). The online petition that was created to promote a decommissioning of the work had over twenty-thousand signatures resulted in a public apology issued from Louise Jeffreys - the artistic director for the Barbican at the time (Farrington, 2019). There were also many cases of defence for the exhibition on the basis of censorship, including from the Barbican itself. This raises the ever-challenging topic of artistic freedom and whether there is a point at which the public can step in to reject works and whether it is right to stop others from the work. What agency does the public have in asserting which art should and should not be on show.
The issue of agency comes into play when we consider whose right it is in the attempt to represent the pain of others. Who, but the ‘other’ in question, should tell the story of their struggle. I would argue that it should not be a task undertaken by a man whose position as a white middle-aged, South African man has granted him very little experience of suffering - especially if given carte blanche to do so on such a global scale. The question of agency in memory is also important to acknowledge, as academic Judith Coullie so pertinently states: “the self-serving recasting of history is a key element in the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful”, and in this case, Bailey’s position and ability to pay black bodies to become the identity-less stand-ins for those oppressed in the human zoos speaks to economic agency in the artworld (Coullie, 2013). Other cultural representatives from South Africa, France, the UK and many other European nations expressed their concerns on the decommissioning of Bailey’s work by the Barbican. Claiming censorship, these parties stood against the closing of the exhibition as they believed it was a polemical piece of theatre that encourages the engagement with the horrors of the colonial past. When Bailey was interviewed by a scholar of my Alma Mater and renowned writer and playwright, Anton Krueger, he defended the work and claimed that “it’s just theatre.. none of (the actors) are their real selves, they’re playing a role. It’s staging a human zoo, but it’s not a real human zoo by any means” (Krueger, 2013).
According to Bailey, the work is about the concept of voyeurism, and how that has changed from the more explicit interests in phenomena such as the human zoo, and how the other is continually objectified today. How he explains the work as different to its inspiration is in its reception and staging - the viewer is challenged by the dominant gaze of the actor, whereas in the human zoos it would be dominant gaze of the viewer. Intended reception aside though, surely its the reaction of the general public which matters? Is the purpose of art to provoke a reaction which was expected from the artist, or is it up to the viewer to ponder their own verdict? In viewing a version of Exhibit A B & C at the National Arts Festival in 2014, my reaction was that the work failed in subverting the colonial archive, it perpetuated its imagery and the role of the black body as a spectacle. Bailey attempted to challenge the racism that was inherent to European ethnographic and anthropological research, but by continuing to homogenise and objectify black bodies and culture I struggle to see its merit as historical commentary. As Professor Svetlana Boym asserts: “there are two types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective”, and in the case of these exhibitions, the artist attempted to reflect on the history of anthropological racism, but instead arguably restored the types of imagery that perpetuates the fetishisation of African people (Boym, 2001).
1. Bailey, B. Yes, Exhibit B is Challenging, The Guardian (September, 2014)
2. Boym, S. The Future of Nostalgia (May, 2001)
3. Coullie, J.L. The Ethics of Nostalgia in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Rethinking History, 18, 2 (December, 2013)
4. Krueger, A. R. Gazing at Exhibit A - Interview with Brett Bailey, Liminalities, Vol. 9, No. 1 (February, 2013)
5. O’Mahony, J. Edinburgh’s most controversial show: Exhibit B, a human zoo, The Guardian (August, 2014)