The show featured live African actors, men and women semi-naked, shackled with chains and bondage as a theme. This misconceived offensive mess, was supposedly making a statement about the nature of racism, objectification, power and control.
It did neither, rather it echoed the painful and unresolved references to Victorian anthropological racism. It was the metaphorical and cultural equivalent, of white man’s trophy safari hunt.
In short, Bailey misguidedly sought to use racist imagery to combat racism. Being a white South African, his attempt to use Africans as his canvass, was seen as utterly unacceptable to the many thousands who supported our campaign. And thousands they were, with over 23,000 signing our online petition to have the show withdrawn.
Racism and the neoliberal white supremacy remains a real and tragic reality for people of colour, throughout the world. However, the specific struggles of those of us who make up the global African or people of colour diasporas, all differ in some way, according the political realities of our respective nations.
This can be seen in the specific histories and struggles against racism and contemporary political, economic and cultural conditions in Latin America, the US, Europe, Africa and Australia.
One aspect of white privilege is the ability to lazily assume, that work, which may well be viewed as quite progressive in one country, is universal in its appeal.
There are huge and real differences of experience and understanding, between those of us who are the descendants of enslaved Africans, who suffered the Maafa, 500 years of transatlantic slavery, in what remains, the greatest crime in human history and, those who may or may not have experienced colonialism.
Britain as a country is still in deep denial about the nature of racism. Bailey’s work assumes a post-racial world that does not exist, neither in South Africa nor indeed, anywhere else.
In the Disneyesque world of post-racist, white privilege, showing the film Uncle Toms Cabin may be a quaint reminder of long gone bygone age, in the real world, the film remains deeply offensive.
Bailey’s arrogance led him to the mistaken belief that as a white son of the Rainbow Nation, his insight would have universal appeal in particular to Africans.
What he failed to understand that each Africa diaspora is informed with the particularities of geography, culture and history
The Barbican and Nitro Theatre group
The campaign led by the Chair of the campaign, Birmingham based activist, Sara Myers, entered into extensive dialogue with those who commissioned the show, UK Arts International, the promoter and the sponsor in chief, the Barbican Arts Centre, a leading international arts organization based here in London.
We lobbied the Barbican’s funders, City of London Corporation. We engaged with Nitro Theatre, a London-based Black theatre company, who fully and publicly supported Brett Bailey after being commissioned by the Barbican to organise casting sessions for the show.
Despite sincere appeals and strong warnings about the deeply provocative nature of this work, all were agreed that the real problem was that we had failed to appreciate the artwork or understand that this was an incredibly important show.
Sara Myers, asked one of the most poignant questions of the campaign when she asked both the Barbican and Nitro Theatre, ‘who is this work important for?’
We were treated with the type of condescending patronisation that viewed the campaign, as a group of ignorant but well-meaning people. Their whole approach seemed to be to demonstrate, that they were desperately, keen to liberate us from our artistic ignorance and sell the show to us.
In the end, it was the pupil, who taught the master.
We were very disappointed, with role played by Nitro Theatre who, as the campaign began to build momentum, were cynically deployed as a human shield by both the Barbican and UK Arts International.
Despite much communication Nitro refused to call off their misguided support of this artistic charade.
Black actor restrained as part of the Bailey Exhibit. The Barbican said Brett Bailey’s work ‘sets out to subvert a disturbing phenomenon.
We were the many, they were the few
All refused to hear our voice or heed our call for the show to be withdrawn. A demand that was backed by a stellar array of Black organisations such as OBV, BARACK UK and BEMMA Arts network, alongside UpRise, trade unions, campaigning groups, members of the public and a number of high profile individuals.
They were told repeatedly that they had made a serious error and that putting on such a deeply controversial exhibition was a massive provocation, particularly in London, the most multicultural city in the world.
We pointed out that the City of London Corporation and the Barbican were governed by boards that are 99% white and, that as such, they were in no position to come to an informed opinion about the nature of racism as utilised in this work, for purely sensational and commercial ends by Bailey.
We pleaded and we counseled. Still they refused to listen and last night over 600 people supported our opening night demonstration and such was the sheer power of our protest that the Barbican eventually caved in.
Bailey himself, rather weakly tried to defend his work by falsely brushing off our concerns and nothing more than brouhaha. He stated that ‘London has its knickers in a twist’ and that our campaign was calling for his work ‘to be banned’ adding that we were nothing ‘ but an angry mob’.
I’m sure that for some white people, any group of black people demanding their rights will be routinely seen as such. Here again Bailey’s arrogance and confusion is perfectly illustrated.
Of course, all this was part of a co-ordinated publicity smear campaign, as evidenced when we handed in our petition to the Barbican. We were falsely accused of ‘storming the doors’ when no such thing actually happened.
This narrative attempted to suggest that not only were we ignorant but we were also violent.
This was a disgraceful attempt to publically marginalise and undermine our campaign. The reason? To act as a smokescreen to hide the Barbican’s own wafer thin commitment to race equality. It is worthy of note whilst they couldn’t find more than one black person to sit on their board, they sure as hell found a whole heap of additional Black security men, for all our meetings with them.
The Barbican said Brett Bailey’s work ‘sets out to subvert a disturbing phenomenon.
Nitro fails to speak at its own public consultation
Nitro then belatedly and under extreme pressure organised a ‘public consultation’ where they bizarrely refused to join their own public discussion panel. The Barbican, who were on the panel, displayed the kind of cack-handed, amateurish understanding of race equality issues involved as to beggars belief.
The campaign team won that debate hands down and really, given the strength of feeling in the room, the Barbican should have cancelled the show there and then.
Then on the opening night of the show in the Vault arts venue in Waterloo, London, over 600 people turned out to demonstrate and oppose this show.
Jammed in an archway rail tunnel, that led to the entrance the atmosphere trembled to the beat of many African drums, horns, chants and whistles. It was a total roadblock.
Those in attendance were furious and determined to close the show. Despite the blithering wail of the Barbican who accused those in attendance of ‘not behaving peacefully’ a constant narrative in this campaign, the show was closed with no one being arrested, injured or property being damaged.
We closed that show, don’t you know.
We achieved an important victory in closing this wretched show. We stood up as a community and worked together to defend of our cultural rights in a marvelous show of people power and unity. We exposed the weak and shambolic artistic and intellectual commitment of a major world arts institution to the principle of race equality. We confronted the largely white, cozy, liberal arts establishment that dominates London cultural landscape. We demonstrated that unity, focus, discipline and hard work can deliver.
Brett Bailey will no doubt hawk his wears elsewhere, as his show moves on to other cities throughout the world. This campaign will follow him and we have already been in touch with our friends abroad.
Where to now for the Barbican and Nitro?
The Barbican reputation is deeply damaged and it will need to work extraordinary hard to recover from this deeply damaging episode. Whilst it can boast an internationally renowned roster of preforming artist, what about space of Black British artists constantly marginalised by such a lazy and disingenuous approaches to ensuring racial diversity.
What about their board and staff make up, again we see an organisation that fails to represent the city it serves. To put in context the Metropolitan Police have more black employees than the Barbican.
Nitro Theatre has lost all credibility as a black arts group after so allowing themselves to so ruthlessly used, no doubt the Barbican will throw them under the bus eventually.
The lessons for us all are, as Marcus Garvey told us, that ‘unity is strength’. Our next step is initiate a discussion to re-establish a national Black arts network to mobilise communities in defence and promotion of our culture and ensuring cultural equality and respect.
It also highlights the urgent need for a national Black arts movement to tackle some issues from Black History Month to issues raised here. We will be meeting to discuss how and when such a network might be created and how, in a world that seeks to destroy radical black political opinion, such a network could be sustained.
What our small campaign demonstrates so perfectly is that anything is possible when we unite.
Victory is ours and the truth is, it tastes sweet. But we should be under no illusion, whilst there in no doubt, we won an important and significant battle, there is more to do and the war against racism, remains to be won.