I guess it’s one way to get international fame, lauded by liberals, and thanked by Black actors for getting some miserly short term employment.
But in the real world for the vast majority of Black Britons, and other Africans on main land Europe -where this exhibition has been equally controversial- Brett Bailey’s human installation that mimics the nineteenth century Victorian ‘human zoo’, which exhibited Africans in cages, is but a modern day facet of white supremacy.
Back then the Victorians viewed Africans less than humans, and therefore put our ancestors in cages to prove it. Thousands came to ogle at the human ‘spectacle’ that fed into the European psyche that Africans had been fair game to have been enslaved or colonised, and controlled as they still were back then.
The new more subtle white supremist such as Brett Bailey will tell Black people and anyone who will listen that he’s on our side.
Speaking about his work he said:
"This exhibition is about humanity; about a system of dehumanization that affects everybody within society, regardless of skin colour, ethnic or cultural background, that scours the humanity from the ‘looker’ and the ‘looked at’."
What he didn’t say and neither did the Barbican who are exhibiting Bailey’s work, is that more than anything else his work is about power. Power then and power now. Who has it, and what they can do with it, even today, regardless of the enormous offence and humiliation it causes for many people. Furthermore, far from challenging the inferior stereotype and prejudice this exhibition has the perverse effect of perpetuating it.
Most importantly if Bailey had the decency to ask Black people here or anyway else if we thought this work helped Black people, or continued to degrade and perpetuate an inferiority myth? I would bet that 95% of Black people would say the latter.
Whichever way Bailey slices this argument, we’re still being objectified, albeit this time in an attempt to induce horror and guilt.
I wonder if the 'artist' had also considered how can I, as a Black parent, take my nine year old child to see such an awful spectacle. What do I or other parents say to our children?
“It’ s okay, this Black man you see in a cage is ermm.... Well it's art son. and I’m sure somewhere in this gallery we can find positive images of Black people.”
Truth is that Brett Bailey and the Barbican management team care not one jot about your or my feelings in regards to this. They just keep telling us that it's art, and that he’s South African, as if that makes a difference.
The bottom line is they do this because they can, and we have to be humiliated once again; a bit like that monstrous chair designed by Bjourne Negaard which depicts a semi naked Black mannequin on her back in a contorted position so that a wealthy owner can sit on her. In this case the wealthy owner was Darsha Zhukova, partner of the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.
Interestingly though, and just to illustrate how powerless we are until we get ourselves better organised, could you imagine Bailey or any non-Jewish person creating an art exhibition -not a museum- from the most degenerative aspects of the Holocaust using all Bailey's 'reasoning'. No, of course not, and rightly so.
Sadly racism is alive and kicking. This time it’s in a world famous gallery -The Barbican - and it's masquerading as art.
There is a petition against the exhibition, I urge you to sign it. It’s the very least we can do to above all protest to the Barbican, which after all is in part a publically funded art space.
Simon Woolley is Director of Operation Black Vote based in London.