Julia Farrington: The Barbican, Exhibit B and "progress zero"

Index comment: The Barbican's mishandling of this work, means that they have failed the artist and the audience. The work is now not going to be shown, so their very vocal support for Exhibit B is totally compromised. And, by being taken by surprise at the hostile response to the work, they have acted defensively, instead of proactively opening up dialogue with black artists and audience at the earliest stage of considering putting on this work. They must now take this opportunity to engage with the 22.5k who signed the petition and lead on a debate, at the highest level, about institutional inequality in the arts in this country. | Also read: Exhibit B: Censorship pure and simple

24 Sep 2014
Exhibit B (Photo: © Sofie Knijff / Barbican)

Exhibit B will take place at the Barbican Sept 23-27, 2014. (Photo: © Sofie Knijff / Barbican)

 Update: Exhibit B was cancelled by the Barbican, the Evening Standard reported, after protesters blockaded the entrance and branded it ‘racist’.

If artistic culture is to be truly dynamic, strong, representative and relevant, the programmes in our theatres, galleries and museums will necessarily be challenging. The work, presented by many different voices, will likely be divisive; and causing offence, whether unintended or deliberate, is unavoidable.

The role of the arts institution in this dynamic cultural life is to manage the space between the artist and the audience, to create a place in which different ideas about the world we live in can be expressed, challenged, exalted, ridiculed and celebrated.

Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, programmed for four days at the Barbican beginning tomorrow, has certainly caused considerable offence; 22,500 people have signed a petition calling for the Barbican to withdraw this exhibition, declaring their intention to protest outside the venue during the run.

The work by the South African theatre maker was inspired by human zoos, popular in 18th and 19th centuries, where human beings of African heritage were put in cages on display alongside animals for the titillation of European audiences. It recreates 12 tableaux of atrocities featuring live actors, who the audience is asked to observe in silence. Brett Bailey’s idea behind Exhibit B is to immerse the visitor in visions of horror and inhumanity to “provoke audiences to reflect on the historical roots of today’s prejudices and policies”.

What interests me here is the role and mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response. I requested an interview with the Barbican, but was told they would speak after the show, once I had seen the exhibition.

For Exhibit B to be anything other than another here-today-gone-tomorrow exhibition that takes the messages of the work to heart, the Barbican would have to be engaged in dialogue with black artists and audiences as part of an ongoing commitment to eradicate institutional racism from the arts.  Yet it is the boycott organised against this exhibition, with its petition, speeches, protests, marches, public meetings, pickets, on and offline debate that is ensuring that any dialogue is happening, albeit in reaction to the programming of Exhibit B, and from the outside.

In response to the boycott, Barbican commissioned Nitro to organise a public debate: Discussions, Learning and Legacy at Theatre Royal Stratford East Monday 22nd.

The panel for the passionate and heated debate about Exhibit B, excellently chaired by Olu Alake, featured six speakers – three supporting the boycott, including Sara Myers author of the Petition and three supporting the work including Louise Jeffries from the Barbican who programmed the work. After each speaker had had their say, the audience of around 150 people, unleashed a barrage of questions from the floor. The two hours allotted to the debate were woefully inadequate for the range and depth of opinion expressed. As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.

By giving a major international platform to Exhibit B without significant contemporary context, engagement or dialogue, the Barbican is unwittingly shining a light on both its own failure and the failure of the wider arts and culture scene to challenge prejudice and policy in the arts in the United Kingdom.  Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.

Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who I spoke to last week about the boycott, was unequivocal: “Since 1980s it is progress zero. Our institutions have failed to bring about change – whether it is academia, the McPhearson Report or funding policies – [black] people feel absented from power, authoring and having a voice” And the reason?  “There are no consequences to this failure. These policies have not made an iota of difference. If they want their institutions to be truly diverse they would withdraw the money from institutions if they don’t deliver.”

Independent arts consultant Jenny Williams takes a pragmatic view by heading up the campaign JustCulture, featuring a 10-point manifesto for change, though she knows, also from years of experience, without investment and commitment from the establishment there is little hope that things will change. She has crunched the numbers: “The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.”

In spite of this grossly unbalanced situation, the organisers of the boycott I have spoken to are talking about how they can turn this into a positive. As Sara Myers, author of the boycott told me, she sees the mass outpouring of frustration and outrage as a catalyst. “A door has opened and we want to take the opportunity to challenge stereotypes, rather than sit back and see them reinforced.” She was however shocked when she met the board and senior management of the Barbican – with one exception, all white.

In her five-star review of Exhibit B for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner says the show “reminds us that most history is hidden from view”. I would say history here is on display for all to see. I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship – and agree with Lemn Sissay that we should all be free to revisit this story “in every part of every generation”.

But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.

This article was posted on 22 September 2014 at

Julia Farrington

11 responses to “Julia Farrington: The Barbican, Exhibit B and “progress zero””

  1. This is, I regret to say, a wretched article.

    I have posted a detailed response on my blog entitled ‘Siding With The Philistines’:

  2. Anthony says:

    What has happened to Index? A bizarre article.

  3. cjcjc says:

    You do know that this was on at the Edinburgh Festival for three weeks in August, don’t you?
    Perhaps Edinburgh has a more positive attitude to free speech?

    This article criticising the Barbican is absolutely crazy.

  4. Maess says:

    ‘Black’- sympathetic level of consciousness (see Jung),’all hope flies out the window’- no bright rainbow hues, no dreams of cosmic realities…no light or visionary imaginings.

    Let us weep…(bows head)

    from a non self hating yet suffering ‘Black artist’ (incognito)

    btw Cracking open ACE coffers, is a ‘stroke of genius’

  5. “What interests me here is the role and mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response.”

    Eh? Sorry? I thought this was Index on Censorship, not Index for Censorship.

    Yes the work is provocative. But when popular feelings are high, we ought to be on our guard to oppose demands for censorship. Unpopularity, or offence, ought not to be a consideration as to whether something is shown or not.

    It is open to those who feel it needs to be criticised to criticise the work. But to censor it is wrong, and that, not a misdirection of the problem in the direction of the Barbican, is what is at issue.

    • Jeff Bannis says:

      I don’t agree with any form of censorship either but I wonder if you have addressed the point of the article. It centres on the idea of a “perpetual mono-cultural bias” hindering some voices being heard. Today, all inquiry, any alternative voice to the mainstream, must seemingly be white. I cannot imagine a major arts organisation presenting an uncompromising piece about racism by a black artist.

      Censorship is already taking place – it just happens at the commissioning stage. I think this protest was really against an arts establishment which has overlooked black creativity and curatorship taking centre-stage for itself, rather than simply this exhibit.

      Some have suggested that Bailey’s work would have met a better reception if he were not white. I disagree, though I think it would have had a chance if the Barbican had a track record of exploring similar themes with those – like Autograph ABP – with an idea of how it is done.

      I hope the Barbican have the courage to admit they’ve made mistakes. The first thing they can do is to correct their somewhat vengeful stereotyping of these inconvenient but peaceful protesters as “threatening”.

      • Angela Manser says:

        I was pleased to come across this article as it expresses my concerns with the way the Barbican center handled this exhibition and the attitudes towards the protestors who have been described as a mob. I find it strange that the exhibition was put on in the space it was and there were only 750 tickets. Surely it should have been a major exhibition with the opportunity for debate and with the chance for education. If it is so important that poeople are able to see this then why was it limited to such a small privileged group (twenty pounds is a lot in this economic climate). There is something very wrong about the whole thing, you can’t just breeze into town with something this serious. There is a place for an exhibition about the horrors of slavery but it should be handled with dignity, like the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.

  6. C Husbands says:

    I’m not mad at Brett Bailey. Really. He is inconsequential; another cynic masquerading in the pretentious world of western contemporary ‘art’, making a name for himself by being ‘controversial’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘daring’, or whatever description du jour best suits your marketing to the chattering classes. Racists such as him are ten a penny, and not the problem.

    The problem is the institutions, fat off charitable status and tax subsidies, who give no-account racists and self haters a platform. The problem is the ‘democratic’ governments who smile benignly while you use Africans’ bloody history to make your name and profits. The problem is those who say art can and should have no boundaries, even when confronted with the truth that this is not and cannot ever be so.

    Voltaire may have defended Bailey and this writer, but all of you would be lynched if you caged children, or ISIS victims, or even animals in the name of art. Citing the testimonies of those who have participated in this grotesque perversion won’t work either. They have traded their dignity for dollars and their words are as hollow as the drums beating rhythms of resistance to this insult.

    But know this; we cannot and will not let this go. Our children do not deserve to be so openly mocked and disrespected. The same applies to our Ancestors, who gave their lives so we would not be in chains and cages. We will hit the institutions where it hurts; their coffers.

    And we will deprive racist cynics of publicly funded, charitable status platforms from which to exploit and/or mock us for profit. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

    • DuBois says:

      >> all of you would be lynched if you caged children, or ISIS victims, or even animals in the name of art

      Two words: consenting adults

      >> The same applies to our Ancestors, who gave their lives so we would not be in chains and cages.

      Actually plenty of your ancestors profited considerably from the slave trade. You can’t have buyers without sellers.

      Perhaps you could devote some of your attention to stopping the actually existing slavery still going on in West Africa and the diaspora before wasting time on first world issues like arts funding. Although that’s a bit of a tougher nut to crack, isn’t it?

      • C Husbands says:

        DuBois, is your name supposed to be ironic? But I digress. There are many things consenting adults are not allowed to do, so your argument is as hollow as the drums that accompanied the protest that shut this foolishness down. Try painting an intimate body part and displaying it as art and see how far you get.

        Perhaps you should check your privilege instead of telling this African what to do. News flash: slavery in this country is over. Your comments about West Africa are duly noted, though your failure to specify where is very interesting. Perhaps you think it’s everywhere?

        The tiny privileged elite of Africans who participated in selling their captives and prisoners does not and cannot justify European involvement in transatlantic slavery, so please spare me that tired “we are all guilty” trope. Try a little humility and learning; it works wonders.

      • C Husbands says:

        DuBois, presumably you are an adult. Try defecating in an art gallery as artistic expression, and see how far you get; that argument is every bit as bogus and disingenuous as the ridiculous claim that art isn’t censored.

        The crimes of a tiny elite of our Ancestors does not excuse the crimes of Europeans. You can’t sell what no one buys.

        Perhaps you should stop presuming (a) what I do and (b) that your privilege entitles you to tell me what to do. But checking your privilege is the toughest nut of all, isn’t it?