'People have a very profound, deep, response to it'

South African artist Brett Bailey discusses Exhibit B

An image from Exhibit B. Photo:- Sofie Knijff.

An image from Exhibit B. Photo:- Sofie Knijff.

SOUTH AFRICAN artist Brett Bailey’s theatre/installation work Exhibit B is sure to be one of the most talked-about shows at this year’s Galway International Arts Festival.

In a powerful critique of racism, the show comprises 13 live installations, examining colonial policies, the history of Europe in Africa, and the plight of immigrants today. As spectators walk through Exhibit B, to the sound of lamentations sung by a live Namibian choir, their gaze is unexpectedly returned. To quote from a review by The Guardian:

"Confronting us with the appalling realities of Europe’s colonial past – the stuff I definitely wasn’t taught at school – Exhibit B isn’t just some kind of guilt trip. It reminds us that most history is hidden from view; it reminds that Britain’s 21st-century ways of seeing are still strongly skewed by 18th, 19th, and 20th century colonial attitudes."

A white South African, Bailey admits his childhood was one of privilege. So how did he grow into the artist who creates works that critiques racism and the relationship between the West and Africa?

“I was not politically aware of what the situation in South Africa was until the 1980s,” he replies. “I had a girlfriend who had very political friends so the last year or two of my high school was when I really became aware of what was going on. I became to some extent politically involved. It was only really when I went to university and people were into political consciousness that I really got a clear perspective on what was going on in the country. In my formative years and childhood I lived pretty much in a bubble and it was through exposure via friends in university that I became aware of the situation”

Exhibit B Barbed Wire

Bailey describes the evolution of Exhibit B: “I wanted to make a piece about racism. I hadn’t really worked with the theme of racism before, I had worked on the subject of relations between Europe and Africa and the rest of the world, not on racism per se. I was interested in how a situation like apartheid could have programmed some people into either supporting a situation or system or going along with it. I picked up a book called Africans on Stage which is about the human exhibitions of the mid 19th century to 20th century that were used as indoctrination to condition people to buy into the colonial project. I started to make a piece about how the representation of colonial subjects has been used to legitimise particular policies.”

A quote from a piece Bailey wrote in The Guardian further illuminates the production; “Exhibit B is not primarily a work about colonial-era violence. Its main focus is current racist and xenophobic policies in the EU, and how these have evolved from the state-sanctioned racism of the late 19th century. These policies do not exist in historical isolation. They have been shaped over centuries. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages. Exhibit B demands we interrogate these representations.”

Several performers in Exhibit B depict historical personalities such as Saartjie Baartman, the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus’, and Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, who was killed in Britain by G4S security guards. The majority of the exhibits embody characters that emerged from Bailey “doing a lot of research and trying to reduce what epitomises a particular era.”

Bailey describes the preparation of the actors in Exhibit B: “In the rehearsals I emphasise that they need to find their own inner meaning in the work. The rehearsals include exercises in endurance, self-awareness and meditation. There is a lot of care, coaching, and compassion. I have testimonies from many of the 150 or so performers, who come from all walks of life, class, and professional status, about how valuable, enriching, and empowering the experience has been.

Exhibit B pale man

"In the rehearsal process we focus on a couple of things. The performers are given two basic instructions, they have to sit or stand completely still and they make eye contact or watch the viewers at all times, there was a good deal of training involved about being watched and looked at. When you are sitting or standing in front of a few hundred spectators who are coming past and looking at you, it is potentially a violating experience so I have trained the performers in meditation technique where they are just observing what is going on and they know what is going on in their body. Rather than a ‘fight or flight’ emotion you think ‘Why is this happening in my body, I have every right to be here, whatever this person is projecting on to me, whatever attitude he or she has, has nothing to do with me so I retain my power and composure.’”

Exhibit B is a production of Bailey’s Third World Bunfight company, which has maintained its position at the forefront of South African performance throughout its 19 year history. TWB creates and presents innovative, multi-layered, performance and installation works, in South Africa and internationally. Its main focus is the post-colonial situation in Africa, and historical and contemporary relations between Africa and the West. Given its raw, powerful engagement with issues of race and colonialism what kind of responses has Exhibit B elicited from its audiences?

“As regards responses some people are very emotional,” Bailey replies. “People have a very profound, deep, response to it, people were feeling guilty or ashamed, sometimes they felt a deep connection with the performers, some were horrified at the history. It is a risk but if as an audient you do engage with the performers, it is one-on-one non-verbal communication.”

Exhibit B runs at the Black Box from Tuesday July 14 to Sunday 19. Details of times can be found at ww.giaf.ie Brett Bailey and the cast will take part in a post-show talk on Thursday 16.

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