Exhibit B: Performers in 'human zoo'-inspired project respond to claims production is racist

The work is inspired by 'human zoos' in Europe and American which featured African tribespeople

Performers in a ‘human zoo’-inspired performance coming to London this month have hit back at claims that the exhibit is racist.

Directed by white South African artist Brett Bailey, Exhibit B is inspired by 19th and early 20th century ‘human zoos’ in Europe and America. The attractions also known as ‘ethnological expositions’, featured African tribespeople displayed similarly to animals in curated ‘natural habitats’.

Following a successful stint at Edinburgh Festival last month, Mr Baileys’s show starts its run at London Barbican’s Centre on 23 September.

Exhibit B sees audiences walk through a room in which black actors – some semi-naked - are displayed on plinths in dioramas intended to reflect the horrors of the colonial era, the Guardian reported.

Singing severed heads, asylum seekers, and refugees described as “found objects” all feature in the controversial show.

Spectators are then invited into a room where they can write down their responses to the piece, while cards describing racism experienced by the actors in the show are on display around them.

A Change.org petition addressed to the Barbican’s chief calling for him to withdraw the show has garnered over 15,000 signatures.

Sara Myers, who started the petition and describes herself as a Black African from Birmignham, has accused the Barbican of “complicit racism” in showing an “exercise in white racial privilege” as no white actors are involved in the performance.

But the actors in the show have now hit back at the criticism, arguing the show exposes the harsh realities of colonialism and racism.

In a joint statement seen by the Guardian, the performers argue that while at “first glance” it is “easy to assume we are nothing but objects”, they in fact found the piece to be a “powerful tool in the fight against racism”.

“We chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change,” the statement adds. 

They continue that they are “proud to be black performers” in Exhibit B, and “to represent our history, our present and ourselves by playing the various characters taken from the record books.”

“By recognising that we are all part of a system that uses race to dehumanise takes the exhibit from a purely confrontational space to a conversational one, where each spectator is challenged to think of what part they play in the system, be it oppressed or oppressor.”

Describing the experience of acting in the exhibit, they powerfully describe how “For a moment, particularly for the first few, we are objects. Then, our eyes meet.”

“Some people literally jump back. Some break into tears; others immediately look away. Others still gaze deeper as their eyes well up.”

Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre at the Barbican said in a statement to i100: “The Barbican made the decision to programme the work based on its artistic merit and we appreciate that the work tackles controversial and sensitive issues. How successfully the production does this is of course, as with any artwork, subjective, and we can only seek to assure those who have signed the petition that the piece aims to empower and educate rather than exploit…

“While we have made the decision to programme this work we are also currently exploring ways that we can hold a public discussion around the controversial issues raised by Exhibit B during its London run.”

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