'Complicit racism': Protests close 'human zoo' show with black actors
The art installation “Exhibit B – The Human Zoo,” by white South African artist Brett Bailey, used black models to pose as slaves inside cages, wearing chains. The Barbican said it confronted "the abhorrent historical attitudes to race during the colonial era" but protesters said the work was offensive and racist.
The Barbican issued a statement saying the five-day run had been called off. It said "the extreme nature of the protest" outside the venue had led to a "serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff."
The Barbican was urged to cancel the show after protesters said the work was an "outrageous act of complicit racism." An online petition, organized by activist Sara Myers, calling for the show to be cancelled, received more than 23,000 signatures.
We regret to announce that 'Exhibit B' has been cancelled. Please visit our website for our full statement http://t.co/4LVmhRtF68
— Barbican Centre (@BarbicanCentre) September 24, 2014
In a statement on the Change.org page, Myers said: "I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.
"If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery, this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it's not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo.”
— zita holbourne (@zitaactivist) September 23, 2014
On the exhibition's opening night, around 200 people gathered outside the venue for the “Boycott Human Zoo” protest against Bailey's installation. The demonstrators held signs saying "I am somebody" and "Our ancestors are kings and queens." Police were called once the protest started. Pickets had been planned for every night the show was on until Saturday – they have been cancelled now that the show was forced to close.
— Sar'z (@saraamandamyers) September 23, 2014
Bailey's inspiration is the 19th century phenomenon of the human zoo, in which people of colour were displayed as museum objects to white Europeans and Americans. A venue description said it set out to shine a light on the "atrocities" of the past and "subvert a disturbing phenomenon."
The exhibition was planned to run at the Barbican Theatre in London from 23 to 27 September, having already toured around Europe, including a positively reviewed stint at the Edinburgh International Festival.
In a statement, the Barbican said: "We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work."
"Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive."