BWW Opinion: Why You Should Go See Exhibit B (or Let it See You)
It was around midnight on Monday when my friend and I rocked through the door, equal parts energised and exhausted after deconstructing the opening show of the Galway International Arts Festival. Ready to collapse on the couch, I looked at my phone to see a Tweet sent to me from Dr. Lucy Michael, a sociology lecturer in Ulster University, linking to her article: "Exhibit B by Brett Bailey - is Ireland ready?". In my five years of being a critic, I've never been dealt a warning shot the night before seeing a show.
I was aware that Brett Bailey's installation, due to open in Galway's Black Box Theatre the next day, is a proposed mock exhibition of the colonial "human zoos" of the 19th century. It's been blazing a trail of controversy from Berlin to Paris, with its London run at the Barbican infamously cancelled last year when hundreds of protestors gathered outside accusing it of racism.
That closure was a success for the anti-racism group Boycott the Human Zoo (BTHZ), who campaigned heavily against the exhibition. It sent shockwaves through the festival circuit, invoking second thoughts in the Toronto Luminato Arts Festival, which ultimately decided not to feature the production for fear of causing offence. In this scene of fretful programmers, Paul Fahy, artistic director of Galway International Arts Festival, has nerve. And when BTHZ wrote to both him and managing director John Crumlish earlier this week demanding the removal of Exhibit B from the festival, they stuck to their guns in a press statement:
"We see this production as a vehicle that highlights and creates awareness of the current situation for asylum seekers in Ireland".
Irish Audiences are Ready
"How well equipped are Irish audiences to understand and interpret Exhibit B?" asks Dr. Michael. It's a question that causes a critic to twitch because the answer is indelibly "very". For a critic, an audience is never dumbed down (you're one of them). We're always ready, always capable of reading the meaning of a performance, granted we're willing to engage with it.
With little way of comparison to racial histories of other countries where the exhibition has played, Michael largely posits our racial attitudes as influenced by the consumption of US. media. This not only underestimates the Irish (a heavily stereotyped people overseas) in their ability to sort through stock and imported representations of race, it also downplays the past two decades of multiculturalism in Ireland. We're no longer simply 'that white Christian country'.
That's not to mention that an Irish man co-authored one of the most subversive race plays in America in the latest months, with Dion Boucicault's and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon in New York.
While our racial history might not be as incendiary as that of England and France, Bailey's exhibition still resonates. To take us inside Exhibit B ...
Sounds of singing and a marching band float over the wall of the steel pen where we sit, finger-twiddling, waiting to be called one by one into the exhibition. The setting feels not completely removed from being an animal in a cage.
Passing through a door, we're met with the first installation: a black actor in contemporary clothes, staring to to the side with a wounded look. His address is listed as Pimlico, Co. Dublin. An asylum seeker. I look at his face again and he's now staring right at me. I realise that when he was looking away before, he was looking at the spectator who entered before me, and now it's my turn. I break contact (out of politeness? Intensity?) and I read the exhibit label: "Found object".
Bailey is quick to situate the exhibition within a local context, encouraging us to see segregation in Ireland's direct provision system as an extension of a wider history of systematic racial abuse. Therefore, Irish audiences do have a vested interest in Exhibit B, especially in a scene where performances dealing with race are incredibly rare.
Not a Human Zoo
The spare, naturalistic display of asylum seekers contrasts with the more visually-treated presentations of historical cases: the 19th century "Hottentot Venus" Saartjie Baartman rotating on a plinth, the Bronx Zoo's Ota Benga holding his bow alongside trophy heads of woodland creatures, the performers' eyes always locked on ours. Where do we look?
Dr. Kehinde Andrews, a sociologist condemning the exhibition in Edinburgh (despite not seeing it), was quoted in a debate in The Guardian saying it "literally turns the black body into an object". If Andrews means the Marxist meaning of the word, an object that yields its character to gratify the desires of the worshipper, it needs to consider the dramaturgical complication: performers yield their natural character to perform. They code themselves. A lot of negative criticism by commentators has been that the black actors are inanimate, have no signs of life. They may remain still but they are powerfully present, breathing, living, looking. They are full of agency because through their nervy stare, they affect our ability to look.
Michael argues that the fact that the performers don't speak is another sign of constraint of black bodies: "Bailey may reassure his actors by telling them that they have the power of the gaze, but they are nonetheless incapable of speech". This is more indicative of an understanding typical in Irish and UK educational traditions that meaning in theatre and performance is principally found in language when these are best considered as visual forms. Furthermore, a Foucaultian analysis would emphasise the role of the visual in operations of power, and make the case that in Exhibit B we are the ones being surveilled.
The biggest danger is likely its spectacle, in risking the actual recreation of the "human zoos". But Bailey's carefully crafted installations are subversive in their sly manipulation of colonial iconography: cracked cups of tea, a mutilated Christian statue. These all suggest broken symbols of a failed order. Colonial powers are not being revived, nor does the production, as BTHZ accused, "reinforce racist stereotypes".
Most concerning have been the comments, reiterated by Michael in her article, on Bailey's 'whiteness'. Are we to regulate processes of artistic production to stock authorities where black art can only be made by black artists, queer art can by queer artists, feminist art by female artists, irrespective of the practitioner's research and skill? Are we to forget that performance involves access to the imaginary? And, even if we did forget all that, what about the fact that Bailey is a South African who lived through the fall of apartheid?
So That We Don't Forget
On the BTHZ website, one of the reasons they argue Exhibit B is racist is because it offers "no tangible positive social outcome to challenge racism and oppression". This presumes art to be utopian when indeed Brecht changed the modern theatre when he slung working class woes in view of the upper class's opera seats in Weimar Germany. Theatre has for a long time had us consider the disorder of the world from our social point of view, and try to figure our position within it.
It's reason enough to go to Exhibit B for sake of never forgetting the atrocities that were committed, similar to why it was important for Irish audiences to see ANU Productions' Laundry or Brokentalkers' The Blue Boy, to hope that history doesn't repeat. Statements by the performers in Bailey's exhibition have recently been integrated into the exhibition: one mourns the devaluing of a black person's life with each shooting in the US. and the UK, another writes that it's up to white people to end racism. These point to a very concerning systematic attack against black people in societies (including ours), and if there's any hope to confront it we have to never forget the crimes of the past. In this respect, Exhibit B is crucial.
Exhibit B runs at the Black Box Theatre as part of Galway International Arts Festival until 19 July. For more information and tickets, see giaf.ie.
From This Author Chris McCormack