Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Exhibit B and the anti-racist dilemma

Looking right through the eyes of the subjugated
How far can art go? Where is the fine line that divides creativity and offensiveness? And who draws this line? When should a piece of art be censored? In fact, should any artistic representation be censored at all? These and other questions pile up as I read extensively about all the heated debate created around the installation/performance Exhibit B by the (white) South-African artist Brett Bailey. If I mention his colour of skin, it is simply because it bears relevance to the matter as this is one of the reasons why his artwork has sparked such controversy.
This live art installation represents a colonial human zoo in what attempts, according to Bailey, to 'explode racial and cultural stereotypes rather than reinforce them'; by placing motionless performers in different positions, the piece aims at confronting and denounce colonialism as well as white European supremacy.
Not so, say many people who protested and signed a petition and who managed to shut down the display at the Barbican in London last September. For its critics, this show is a way of reinforcing prejudices and denigrating Black people.
Similar scenes of protest have been seen in France this month.

Colonial human zoos, but is it art?
So, the burning question is here again. It has happened so many times, whenever a community feels offended by a representation, from the Satanic Verses to the Sikh community (or some members of it) demanding a play to be stopped, or more recently the case of the Tricycle theatre and the Jewish Film Festival.
I personally find it difficult to back any demand for a show to be censored, unless there is an element suggesting racial, ethnic, religious or gender hatred incitement. As this is clearly not case, I can only lament the fact that due to these protests many people will not be able to make their minds up.
The verdict, then, is pretty clear in this occasion; may Exhibit B offend and disgust some people? Certainly; Can it be labelled as provocative and thought-provoking? Indeed; Are there any grounds for it to be banned? Absolutely not.