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Ten thoughts I’ve had since the 'human zoo' was cancelled

LIFE IMITATING ART: A scene from Spike Lee film Bamboozled

IN LIGHT of Brett Bailey’s human zoo, no one can deny the prophetic nature of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled about a frustrated black screenwriter who wrote a minstrel show (set on a watermelon patch no less) in a bid to be sacked. He convinced two desperate actors (they were literally homeless and tap-dancing for food) to star in it by pitching it to them and his boss as a “satirical re-visit” of the old minstrel shows in order to “understand the pain they caused”. A complete farce. Sound familiar?

Dear Stella Odunlami – performer in the human zoo and passionate defender of Bailey (the human zookeeper), we know you believed in (some would say, ‘fell for’) the stated aims of the installation and are angry at its cancellation. This is understandable. However, it is very shortsighted to allow yourself to be rolled out time and again to be the happy black face inadvertently bashing the anti-racism movement. On BBC Sunday Morning Live, you should have boldly stated that though you disagree with the anti-’human zoo’ protestors you also disagree with the notion that anti-racism has ‘gone too far’ (as proffered by host Sian Williams).


Please remember this: the anti-racist movement you are being used to discredit is made up of the very faces who are always there for people like you and I. Whether it’s Stephen Lawrence, Trayvon Martin, Ebola in Africa, apartheid – wherever the struggle may be, these people support victims and their families. And, forbid the thought, but if your family or mine is in need they’ll be there for us too. Can you confidently say the same of, say, Bailey, Barbican chiefs Sir Nicholas Kenyon, or Louise Jeffreys?

Pictures of the gagged, chained, semi-naked and blacked up (in gloss emulsion paint) performers and the cheese and wine-tasting liberal voyeurs who came to stare at them being bundled into cabs in ‘fear’ of demonstrators ‘brandishing’ drums would in its own right be art worthy of the Tate Modern.


Black MPs proved once again that when it comes to representing black people they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Sadly, not one of them spoke up. But why would they? Why risk the political capital when taking the odd selfie suffices for us to hero worship them? Thank God for Lord Boateng.

The Liberal Democrats demonstrated their lack of understanding of and sensitivity to racism when their flag-bearer, Nick Clegg, backed the human zoo without trying to ascertain the facts.

CAMPAIGN: Lord Boateng was one high-profile political figure who lobbied against Exhibit B

Is it right or fair for critics who have jobs in mainstream national publications to review art that is targeted at a demographic they fall firmly outside of and demonstrably do not understand? Just because I hold a job as, say, an art, film, music or theatre critic at a major national publication doesn’t make me an authority on all art under said umbrella. Nevertheless, my opinion as a critic is afforded credibility (which could damage the prospects of the art in question) by way of the publication I work for when, in reality, I may not really know what I’m talking about.
The Guardian, bastion of the liberal intelligentsia, gave mediocre three star reviews to black-focused plays Gone Too Far by Bola Agbaje (now a film) and Ade Solanke’s Pandora’s Box (now on nationwide tour) – an injustice to what are now both considered critical pieces of work capturing the Black British experience today.

On the other hand, Bailey’s minstrel festival got a gushing five stars. All three were reviewed by 50-something-year-old white people. It should also be noted that Lyn Gardner was the person who reviewed both Exhibit B and Pandora’s Box.

This lack of diversity amongst critics is patently unfair and significantly disadvantages art by black people.


Exhibit B was not censored by protesters who demonstrated peacefully, despite what the Barbican’s statement following the exhibition’s closure suggested. With that said, the same people and organisations who are outraged at the Barbican’s withdrawal of Bailey’s exhibit were either silent or celebrating when Iran’s Press TV was taken off the air. Many of them are eager for Russia Today to be taken off the air too. But now they claim to be concerned about censorship. They might want to examine the motives behind their outrage.

The fact that there is more discernible outrage and alarm over the Barbican’s closure of Exhibit B than there is the actual demonstrable racism highlights what visible ethnic minorities are up against in Britain.

Seventy years after the fact, a German couldn’t show up at the Barbican and say “I would like to stage a Nazi-themed exhibition complete with live Jews”. They’d call security on ‘Adolf’ and rightfully so. Yet, 20 years after the fact, a white South African who owes his privilege and career directly to the subjugation and genocide of black Africans can show up in multiple cities and stage a human zoo complete with live Africans.

Dear Brett Bailey – the enfant terrible of South African theatre, if you seek controversy, don’t be shocked or upset when you get it.

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