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Protesters stop Exhibit B ‘human zoo’ performance at Paris theatre

The reenactment of the exhibition of the embalmed body of African-born philosopher Angelo Soliman in the Vienna Natural History Museum in the18th century
The reenactment of the exhibition of the embalmed body of African-born philosopher Angelo Soliman in the Vienna Natural History Museum in the18th century Sofie Knijff

Protesters stopped the controversial Exhibit B performance at a Paris theatre on Thursday evening, accusing it of being racist and exploitative. The theatre’s management, backed by several anti-racist groups, has vowed to continue showing the show by South African artist Brett Bailey.

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About 100 demonstrators smashed through the doors of the Gérard Philippe de Saint-Denis theatre in Saint Denis, just outside Paris, after two evening performances had already taken place, forcing the cancellation of any further ones.

Exhibit B presents performers in tableaux recalling atrocities and indignities inflicted on Africans under colonialism and apartheid in a form that recalls the human zoos organised in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The only thing they show is people in atrocious situations and atrocities are not enough to tell history,” a protester told France24 TV.

“This show makes money from the memory of our grandparents,” another commented. “The new blacks say no.”

Bailey insists that his performances are anti-racist and the performers, who are all black, have backed him.

"As they move through the exhibit, we watch them and witness anger, grief, pity, sadness, compassion,” they said in a statement after protests in Britain earlier this year. “Above all, we witness a dawning of awareness. This is why we keep doing this, and would keep on doing it, if we could."

British-born left-wing activist John Mullen, who has organised a petition against Exhibit B in France, does not agree.

“A white author uses black bodies to talk to other whites about their feelings in relation to colonialism. And uses public funds in a multi-ethnic town to do so,” he comments on his blog.

The Saint Denis theatre’s director Jean Bellorini says he is defending artistic freedom.

“I understand some people’s pain because this wound is still bleeding,” he said on Friday. “But an artistic proposition remains a proposition. When I read a book that I find unbearable I stop reading but I don’t want to burn it.”

The show is scheduled to continue at the theatre until 30 November before moving to the 104 theatre in northern Paris between 6-15 December.

"My performers are full of fire. My team is full of fire ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light. The show will go on," Bailey wrote on Facebook.
 

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