DISMISSING THE PROTEST AGAINST “EXHIBIT B” AS CENSORSHIP IS SHUTTING DOWN THE VERY CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE THAT WAS INTENDED.
The cancellation of the Barbican show “Exhibit B” has brought out a near unanimous closing of the ranks amongst self-appointed defenders of liberal arts. Only one view is acceptable, it seems, and any diversion from this position is being derided and dismissed.
Received wisdom - judging from the stern commentaries reminding everyone to toe the line - has it that this is about censorship, a crime against free speech and the rule of the mob, and thus must be vigorously opposed.
Firstly, can we be clear and accurate about what has actually happened? Then we can argue about interpretation. The show has not been banned, nor has it been censored. The Barbican decided on its own to cancel the show after a five-week protest campaign. During this time the protest organisers corresponded and met with the Barbican board, organised a march and rally outside the Barbican Centre, raised over 20,000 petition signatures calling for the show to be reconsidered, took part in a heated public debate which was overwhelmingly in support of a rethink, and, lastly, led a peaceful protest outside the venue on the opening night, during which the show was finally cancelled.
The Barbican’s press statement claimed, “it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.” Let us return to that, because it is a masterpiece of mendacity and spinelessness.
For now, we need to discuss censorship itself. Because it is a very narrow definition that is being bandied around in the current rash of outraged articles (which, by the way, all direct their ire at the protestors rather than the institution. Nowhere have I read, “Shame on you Barbican for caving in!” which is where anyone who actually meant what they said would aim their anger.)
Any discussion of censorship is meaningless without a discussion of power. It’s not just a case of, “I should be able to say what I like in a free society!” Of course you should. But in the arts who gets to choose what gets seen and who gets to see what gets shown are vital questions that are usually overlooked. Not everyone’s ideas are given space to exist when it comes to vital questions of funding and commissioning.
This power to set the agenda and frame the debate is crucial. I can imagine, argumentum ad absurdum, a ruthless dictatorship that permitted free speech for the ruling classes. A civil protest tries to shut down a show patronised by the rich that pokes sadistic fun at the misery of the poor. Outrage ensues - “an attack on free speech! The values of our free society are under threat!” Alternatively, would anyone now genuinely try to defend a show in, say, Nazi Germany, that portrayed Jews in an unsavoury light on the grounds of free speech?
Predictably, amongst the outraged commentaries there have been several disingenuous references to the Holocaust and to films such as Schindler’s List - the implication being that “Jewish people can handle talking about their collective trauma, get over yourselves Black people!”
Can anyone seriously imagine the Barbican commissioning a show that had live Jewish actors in striped pajamas reenacting scenes from Auschwitz? All lying naked in a pile inside a gas chamber, for example? Directed by a German gentile? (“What? How can you make reference to his ethnicity! It makes no difference to the work!”)
*(Interestingly, Jewish people did react, and quite strenuously, to the Tricycle Theatre’s recent request that the forthcoming Jewish Film Festival decline from receiving funding from the Israeli Embassy in light of the ongoing civilian massacres in Gaza. Despite the theatre’s offer of replacing the funding themselves the festival organisers decided to pull out completely. This was then portrayed as anti-semitic censorship and utterly condemned by Zionist writers at the Guardian and other bastions of the liberal arts establishment. The Theatre was forced to climb down. Such is the neoliberal hall of mirrors we live in today: every act can be deconstructed and even genuine acts of political commitment can be recast and vilified as censorship.)
Aside from the degrading humiliation on display, the key issue that protestors had with this show was that it was yet another example of the wearyingly familiar, singular story of Black victimisation, Black suffering and Black pain. It is a selective and outdated narrative and we are tired of it. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world and one that is at the leading edge of thinking about race. That is precisely why this show couldn’t go on here. It might appear novel to be reminded of Black suffering in Amsterdam (where they still have the blackface Zwarte Piet tradition, which continues despite widespread condemnation) but we don’t need to see Black people in cages in order for Whites to learn about racism here in London, thank you very much.
Brett Bailey claims he sought to challenge perceptions and inspire debate about racism and the ‘objectification’ of human beings, not to simply shock or offend. But the delicious irony is that the issues the show raised are much bigger and more potent than he could ever have imagined. The shock has been his own at the size and passion of the protest and the show’s cancellation. The challenge has been to the institutional White privilege of the UK arts establishment, and the inspiration has come from Black (and White) people who have been moved to make their voices heard and claim back a just little bit of public space from the ongoing dominant racist hegemony that is the institutional White gaze.
The only thing that has been censored - by the liberal arts establishment and all who cry foul and speak of the dangers of censorship - is the necessary debate about race, representation, access, power and privilege. No-one has mentioned these issues in all the spluttering, offended commentaries. If Bailey genuinely wanted to provoke a discussion about these matters then he got one - it’s just not how he imagined and is more unexpectedly volatile than he anticipated. The protest is now as much a part of the artwork as the artwork itself. Your show was unwittingly successful, Brett! The people have spoken! Now, you speak truth to power and let’s have that discussion you claim you wanted to inspire.
Yet instead of engaging with the issues his art raises Bailey hides behind wounded articles about free speech and makes statements such as this: “I shudder to think that an artwork made in love against the hate of racism could spark a violent riot.” (Mail and Guardian SA 27/09/14)
Liberal Whites may fall for that faux bullshit but most intelligent Blacks can see right through it - demonising us as a violent mob whilst also presenting yourself as oh-so feeling and anti-racist? You predictable snake…
Bailey, the Barbican, and all the commenters are just further proving how arrogant and out-of-touch they are in being unable to face an authentic discussion of White privilege. God forbid that they should examine themselves! Instead they are finding comfort in familiar stereotypes about angry mobs of bullying Black people who presented a “serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.” Shame on the Barbican for this cowardly and convenient cover for their climb down, not to mention the missed opportunity for opening up dialogue for learning and exchange to ensure that future programming actually attends to the needs of a diverse 21st century audience, not just its racially monotone elite.
Exhibit B should never have been commissioned in the first place. It was withdrawn because the Barbican totally underestimated the strength of feeling and commitment to action of the protestors and got cold feet about going ahead with the show. It has camouflaged its humiliating climb down by slinging mud at the protestors and invoking familiar racist tropes about people feeling “threatened” by angry Blacks. All the liberal commenters have fallen into line and are repeating the mantra that this is all about free speech and censorship. Tellingly, instead of attacking the institution (which should be there to defend free speech and would have the full support of the police force if needed) they are attacking the protestors (none of whom were arrested, stopped, cautioned or in any way hauled up by the police), calling us “bullies” (Catherine Bennet in the Guardian), “stupid” (Terence Blacker in the Independent), likening our protest to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini (Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman), accusing us of “intimidation, force…violence” (Index on Censorship), and dismissing us as “a few loud-mouthed people” (Bailey himself, despite 20,000+ signatures on the petition).
The only thing being censored here is the necessary debate about White privilege. I fear that the institutional powers that could make this happen would find that conversation too challenging and too uncomfortable for it to ever take place.
Remembering African-American Victims Injured By Police Brutality In America
Rev. Earl Baldwin Jr. (Pennsylvania): Tased By Pittsburgh Police While Praying & Giving Last Respects For His Deceased Stepson In A Hospital, Survived The Taser Attack, Has Now Sued Pittsburgh In A Civil Rights Lawsuit Over The Tasing
Reverend Earl Baldwin Jr. of Pittsburgh filed a civil rights lawsuit against police after they allegedly restrained and tased him in a hospital emergency room. Baldwin claims he was trying to pay his last respects to his dead stepson when the incident occurred.
According to Baldwin, he was trying to pray for 23-year-old Mileek Grissom in the UPMC Mercy Hospital, when officers pulled him away and tased him. “I needed to tell him his family was going to be OK,” Baldwin explained to WPXI. “I was going to do everything I could to make sure they were OK.”
Video from a hospital camera shows a distraught Baldwin handcuffed and surrounded by several officers trying to pull him away from his son, and one of the officers shooting him in the back with a taser. Officers say Baldwin was interfering while doctors tried to revive Grissom, but a family attorney says Grissom was dead and not being treated at the time.
The police department has not issued a statement about the lawsuit, but UPMC refutes Baldwin’s claim. “Clearly this was a stressful situation and a tragic loss for this family,” it said. “However, the allegations about the circumstances are inaccurate.”
Tori Baldwin, Grissom’s mother, was denied entry into the hospital at the time.
Source: Carimah Townes for ThinkProgress
A troubled past: Slavery in East Africa is a subject that is not talked about often enough. Typically, conversations about slavery only discuss slaves that were taken to the Americas but slaves were also taken in East Africa throughout what is now Tanzania, Congo, and other modern-day countries in the region as well. Many slaves were taken from the area around Lake Tanganyika - forced into servitude by Arab slave traders who raided villages or sometimes sold into slavery by kings, The slaves were then forced to walk from where they were captured to Bagamoyo, on the coast. This journey would take months and many slaves died along the way.
The slaves were often forced to carry the other valuable commodity of the region with them: ivory (see top picture) and were chained together, 50 or 100 at a time for this long forced-walk to the coast (see bottom picture). Slavers such as the infamous Tippu Tip - who was supposedly named after the noise his gun made if you were too exhausted to walk - made a fortune off of this trade and up until the colonial period, these Arab slave traders had a big presence in the area. Not that colonialism was any better though; it’s true slavery was used to justify slavery but was the system or forced labor where colonial subjects would pay ‘tax’ to the state through forced labor an improvement? It’s difficult to qualify such matters but I just wanted to put things into context.
As you travel to the West of Tanzania, you can still see the effects of slavery today. Though the Waswahili people and others who lived on the coast had a positive interaction with Islam, many on the interior very much did not because of slavery. Thus, as you travel more and more west in Tanzania (and finally into Congo), you see less and less mosques because of this. So, though this history was over a hundred years ago, it’s certainly not something that can - or should - be forgotten that easily.
Pictures were taken, top to bottom, at the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and the Holy Ghost Mission in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
Anonymous, asked a question:
It should be there here is the link.
Thomas Sankara :The Upright Man: http://youtu.be/J5USbA701SI
Fela Kuti on Thomas Sankara
Did you know that in 1987 – Fela was devastated by the murder of Captain Thomas Sankara – personal friend, fellow musician, revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso and one of the only heads of state at the time who publicly embraced Fela and his music.
In A interview on February 1988 Fela was asked?
Your friend Thomas Sankara has just been murdered. What did Sankara mean to you and how do you feel about his death?
(Long pause)… His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad… (Long silence)… but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Fasso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders.
Happy birthday Fela Kuti, Rest in peace Thomas Sankara.
Thomas Sankara - The Upright Man
A Documentary on the rise and fall of Africa’s ‘Che’ Thomas Sankara, a must watch.
Thomas Sankara rose to power in a popularly supported coup in 1983 and renamed his country to Burkina Faso, “Land of Upright Men” and launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted in Africa.
Sankara was assassinated on October 15th 1987.
Shirley Ann Jackson, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT. Jackson conducted research at Fermi National Accelerator and Bell Labs on theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics and was awarded 40 honorary doctorates.
Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art edited by John Duke Kisch with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and an afterword by Spike Lee
This magnificent volume is a celebration of the first 100 years of black film poster art. A visual feast, these images recount the diverse and historic journey of the black film industry from the earliest days of Hollywood to present day.
Shouldn’t it be called African American poster art.
An exhibition and conference highlight rare images of the contribution of Africans to Indian society.
How Africa Would Look Like if its Borders Were Defined By Ethnicity and Language. By George Peter Murdock,1959
the things they don’t want you to know. but there’s equality though right.
Perhaps there wouldn’t be as many borders. Many African groups like some of their native American counterparts. Didn’t feel the need to carve up and own land.