Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Lee Jasper responds to black arts group Nitro’s support for the Human Zoo exhibition.

There is a raging debate about the forthcoming art installation Exhibit B, produced by South African artist, Brett Bailey due to launch at the Barbican on the 23rd September.

The show has attracted much criticism from a wide range of organisations, backed by an online petition representing a huge consensus of organisations, trade unions, campaigning groups, anti racists and a wide range of black arts groups and performers. I wont reaherse our issues again here as you can read more about the detail of our objections in a previous article I wrote.

Viewed as controversial, the exhibition more appropriately labeled the ‘Human Zoo’, features black actors in various settings, including Africans in cages and chained in bondage. 

This artwork installation is said to reflect the universal themes of bondage, oppression and power, seeking to make a statement about the legacies of colonialism reflected in contemporary racism.

Controversial indeed and, already there is an emerging and growing consensus that this misguided show should not go ahead. A campaign has been formed and you can join us here.

It’s notable that very few black organisations or individuals have sought to defend the show, thus far. Poet and author, Lemn Sissay has voiced his support for the show. Those in support remain far and few between, however today we read the fulsome support for this misguided exhibition from a serious black arts organization, Nitro Music Theatre.

On their blog, Director Felix Cross defends Brett Baileys work stating’

Exhibition B is an astonishing, moving, serious and thoughtful work that forces-us-the audience-to consider both historic and contemporary injustice to African peoples”.

Mr. Cross goes onto say that Nitro were “ highly sensitive to the potential controversial subject matter” but were reassured after they met Brett and visited the exhibition in Edinburgh.

He acknowledged the widespread anger that has erupted since the show was advertised as coming to London ‘ describing it as "very understandable” and the fact that the online petition, calling for a boycott, signed by almost 20,000 people, is attracting serious and substantial support. 

All well and good you may say, after all they’re entitled to their opinion.

What I’m not clear about is what is Nitro’s relationship with both Bailey and the Barbican? I ask this question because on their blog there is an actors casting advert specifically for the exhibition.

This begs the serious question have Nitro been paid for this work or as a result of their partnership with the Barbican?  If turns out Nitro are being paid, then Mr. Cross’s statement will lack any real credibility, unless supported by other credible black arts organisations.

In addition to the above, I am forced to ask if Nitro has, in the past, supported black artists, whose work’s has been seen as equally controversial?  Given their express support of Brett Bailey’s work, I would expect to see radical black artists, whose work challenges racism and attracts similar level of controversy, featured in their portfolio of works.

Another important question, prompted by Nitro’s statement, is why they have waited so long to make their position clear?

The public debate has been increasing in intensity since the petition was launched, what took Nitro so long to make a public statement? 

Given Nitro’s admission of the controversial nature of Brett’s work, did they then consult with other black organisations in a genuine attempt to asses their views prior to fully endorsing the artist?  Whilst claiming to work hard fighting to ensure that ‘missing voices, producing and sharing the artistic representation of the Black experience across the diaspora, They appear to completely 'miss the voice' of their family right here in the UK. 

I agree with the proposal from Mr. Cross, suggesting further discussion in the general issue of encouraging more black artistic voices; this should be explored further with Nitro. 

I do wonder though, why Nitro has not sought specific discussions, on this matter with any of the many sister black organisations that oppose this show, in a genuine effort to fully explore our concerns?

It strikes me that Nitro’s statement could be construed as being ‘too little, to late’. They should be given the opportunity to fully explain their position for sure, disappointingly however their statement falls woefully short of providing a credible explanation for their support for this dreadful exhibition.


Forthcoming actions:
Thursday 11th September at 12:00

The Barbican Exhibition Centre London EC2Y 8DS

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