WHEN BRETT Bailey’s theatre installation show Exhibit B was controversially pulled from its scheduled run at London’s Barbican it was because protesters had argued that Bailey’s critique of 19th century ‘human zoos’ and racism was in itself racist, through his use of black actors silently enduring the audience gaze in a series of tableaux vivants.
Had those protesters not been in such a rush to pass judgement and actually gone to see the work first they would have discovered that far from the actors being gazed at by the audience it is the audience who are being gazed upon, and those gazes, always steady and sometimes sorrowful, are, of themselves, intensely powerful indictments of the terrible atrocities perpetrated by colonial powers in Africa and injustices of our own time.
Upon entering the Black Box, the audience are led to a seated enclosure of metal fencing with numbers allotted to each chair. One by one the audients are summoned through to the performance space, where the actors comprise the series of exhibits. In front of each performer an information card gives the historical details of the personality or story that they represent. Several of the performers portray real-life individuals such as Saartjie Baartman, ‘The Hottentot Venus’, but most represent characters caught up in the shocking brutality of places like the Belgian Congo or German Namibia. The abuses endured by modern day immigrants are also depicted.
Some of the exhibits are quite simply staged while others are elaborately set with props and setting. Taken all together it is a show that is both unsettling and unforgettable. A definite highlight of this year’s arts festival.