France - United Kingdom - South Africa

French Exhibit B theatre defies anti-racist human zoo protests

A demonstration against Exhibit B in Saint Denis
A demonstration against Exhibit B in Saint Denis NnoMan/Collectif OEIL

The controversial performance installation Exhibit B is set to begin a seven-day run on Sunday in Paris’s Centquatre contemporary arts centre. Opponents accuse the show of being racist, its supporters say it is a critique of racism and colonialism.


Exhibit B: for or against? Artist Brett Bailey and opponent John Mullen state their cases

Galvanised by the example of the UK where protesters succeeded in getting the show cancelled at London’s Barbican theatre in September, the French Collective Against Exhibit B continues to call for a boycott.

But the theatre refuses to back down to pressure and says the show will go ahead
in the name of both free speech and future dialogue over the many difficult issues the show raises.

South African Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B is based on the human zoos and ethnographic displays of the late 19th century.

Black actors reenact tableaux based on real historical events in a critique of colonial rule.

Several tableaux show African migrants of today, one asphyxiated on a plane during deportation from Europe.

It’s not comfortable viewing and isn’t meant to be.

But it has been shown in some 15 cities over the last four years and received an enthusiastic welcome, according to Bailey.

Last year it featured at the Avignon Theatre Festival and was also performed at the Centquatre theatre – an arts centre in a working-class part of east Paris that prides itself on its openness and desire to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Back then Exhibit B got good reviews and caused little controversy.

But it’ll play in a very different atmosphere today.

“Unfortunately, there’ll be a heavy police presence,” says theatre director José-Manuel Gonçalvès. “People, families, won’t be able to circulate like they usually do.”

Everything has changed, he says, since the show was cancelled in London under pressure from the Collective Against Exhibit B.

But the show will go on at Centquatre, he says.

“This is not a racist work. If it were, there are laws in France which would ban it. It’s an important work. As many people as possible have to see it.”

Tickets are sold out, not just for tonight but for the week-long run.

But members of the French Collective Against Exhibit B are determined to stop it, as they did two performances in Saint Denis, outside Paris, at the end of November before riot police were drafted in.

“We’re winning,” says John Mullen, a British anti-racist, leftist activist, who teaches history near Paris and founded the collective in France.

“They’re having to show to the world that this supposedly anti-racist exhibition can only happen behind riot police against loads of young black people. We will close it down.”

Mullen says Exhibit B is racist and degrading to black people.

“It’s an insult to black people. He (Bailey) takes a little bit of colonial history, takes away the white person, takes away all black resistance and then takes the clothes off the black people, stops them from speaking or moving and adds decorative light and music.”

Mullen has a point. But like many members of the collective, he hasn’t seen the show. Unsurprising, if you’re calling for a boycott.

His opinions are based on the many videos and interviews circulating on social media.

Bailey insists that critics have misunderstood the work.

“It’s a performance, not a photograph,” he says. “People are just seeing flattened-out, two-dimensional images.”

He claims they’re not seeing the interaction between actors and spectators.

While the actors are indeed immobile, they stare at the spectators, “objectifying” them in the way they were objectified themselves in human zoos.

What's more, they defend their roles in written testimonies the public can read at the end of the show.

Guillaume Mivekannin says he feels “an urgency to explain, inform and educate people about this colonial period, about the French State’s desire to absorb all of those countries, and the consequences of such policies all these years later.”

Priscilla Adade-Helledy, who was unable to perform in London, describes the project as “incredibly necessary”. As a young black westerner, “I have learned so much about my own history. It’s helped me to question both myself and the world I live in.”

In the UK the collective had the support of several eminent figures such as Lord Paul Boateng, the first black man to become a cabinet minister, and Simon Woolley, coordinator of Operation Black Vote and a former equalities and human rights commissioner.

Here in France, the campaign lacks such high-profile backing and the appearance on French TV of co-founder Bams, a Franco-Cameroonian singer, comparing Exhibit B to Hitler’s Mein Kampf has done little to advance its cause.

French philosopher and intellectual, Claude Ribbe, is one of the few well-known figures backing the collective.

He was on the picket line in front of the Gérard Philippe theatre in Saint Denis on each of the four nights of the run.

“This seems to me a legitimate fight,” he commented. "People are refusing this show not for reasons of censorship but because they believe it’s an affront to the memory of a whole community.”

Ribbe cites the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who earlier this year supported a ban on comic Dieudonné’s show on the grounds that it was anti-Semitic.

“She said that when a show tramples on the memory of a community, the freedom of speech argument wouldn’t apply," he points out.

Ribbe says he doesn’t know “if that jurisprudence is good or bad, but we believe it should apply.”

Theatre director Goncalves meanwhile recognises the show disturbs but insists giving in to protesters would pave the way for all kinds of obscurantism.

“I’m sorry but the opinions of protestors, most of whom haven’t seen the show, cannot be seen to weigh as much as the informed opinion of 15 cultural institutions who’ve seen and judged the work,” he says. “They’re not equal.”

He also insists strongly on the fact that Exhibit B raises important issues about representation and under-representation of ethnic minorities, both in the cultural domain and wider society.

“We’ve been in discussions with some members of the collective for three weeks now. These discusions have been intense, important, thought-provoking. That must continue.”

The collective is pushing for a public debate, something that hasn’t happened so far.

Gonçalvès says the theatre wants it to go ahead and hopes it will, but that it can only do so if the show is maintained.

“Look what’s happened in London,” he says. “The show was cancelled and now no one’s talking about those important issues. You close the show, you close the debate.”

Whether that debate can be open to the public is still far from clear.

But the issues raised by Exhibit B are here to stay.

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