Exhibit B, one of the flagship events at this years Galway International Arts Festival, has been branded a "racist installation", and a direct appeal has been made to the festival to remove it from its programme, in spite of the fact that the show is currently running in the Black Box Theatre.
The work, by South African artist Brett Bailey which opened in Galway on Monday, seeks to parody and subvert the 19th century human zoos which featured native Africans on display for the curiosity and enjoyment of the public, and to force viewers to confront the racism of Europe's past and its attitudes to migrants today.
However, the British -ed Boycott the Human Zoo group, founded by Afro-Caribbean Briton Sara Myers, and supported by a coalition of anti-racist, Black community organisations, arts organisations, and trade unions, says the work fails to achieve this and is instead "an installation which features racism both in its content and in the process by which it has come to be put into the public domain".
BTHZ has already successfully campaigned to get London's Barbican to cancel its planned showing of Exhibit B in September. Also, Toronto refused to allow the exhibition to take place there due to the negative impact and offence it would cause for Black communities. The coalition has now written to the GIAF's artistic director Paul Fahy and its managing director John Crumlish, asking them to "decommission Exhibit B from its programme" of events.
In its letter to Messrs Fahy and Crumlish, BYHZ accused Exhibit B of being "racist and immensely offensive". It further accused artist Brett Bailey's "alleged ‘educational’ message" of getting "lost to the point where it is a parody of itself and manifests the racism it claims to challenge".
It also pointed out that its campaign is "not about ‘censorship’ - the predictable and lazy response for supporters of Exhibit B - it is about the disconnected and uninformed process by which this piece came to be commissioned. It is not anti-art but anti-racism". It also said that while Mr Bailey's website contained favourable reports on the installation, "it does not however refer to the overwhelmingly larger number of people that have opposed its residency in their towns, cities, and countries".
In the letter the group said, "the road to equality is not through the production of Exhibit B and art that reinforces racist stereotypes, it is in the ceasing of commissioning of such works and a change in the procedures and processes by which they come to be commissioned and access to opportunities for black artists."
BTHZ is now asking the GIAF to furnish it "with all the details of your consultation process" in "order to obtain your decision to proceed with this commission". The letter added: "It is of significance that Galway International Arts Festival receives 28% of finances from public sector grants - which brings with it further requirement for transparency and responsibility."
The group is also running a petition on its website, boycotthumanzoouk.com, urging the public to support its calls for the show to be prohibited. BTHZ pointed out in its letter that petitions are now running in several countries including 23,000 signatures in Britain and 20,000 in France, and that more than "one million people around the world are saying ‘No’ to Exhibit B.
However, last evening, the Galway International Arts Festival rejected the criticism, saying that the performance was a powerful critique of racism. In a statement to the Advertiser, a spokesman said they believe that Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B is anything but racist.
"While Exhibit B deals with atrocities carried out by the European colonial powers in Africa in the past 200 years, it also draws attention to the plight of modern day asylum seekers and how they are treated," a statement from the GIAF read. "Ireland is a country, which has experienced generations of mass emigration. The scenes from Exhibit B which specifically deal with 21st century asylum seekers are strongly resonating with Irish audiences and asks the question of how we welcome others to our country. We see this production as a vehicle that highlights and creates awareness of the current situation for asylum seekers in Ireland."
Charlie McBride's review of Exhibit B is at http://www.advertiser.ie/galway/article/78494/review-exhibit-b-giaf-2015