#BoycottHumanZoo: when racism becomes part of the art landscape

 

N.B. This is a translation of a French article – the first part – written by Mrs Roots and Po Lomami. The specific context is that of France’s racism (which deliberately chooses to avoid talking about race or to acknowledge its racism). France is also the host of a distinctive elitist class of academic assholes in white beards who protect “art” at any cost, thus pre-emptively avoiding any constructive concrete art criticism (so we’re definitely not talking about whether this triangle is on the right side of the canvas here – somehow, they see that as more of an acceptable debate than whether a piece is racist or not). Also I’m a white girl who drinks Starbucks and eats bland chicken, so my translation may not be 100% on point, even though I wholeheartedly agree with the author. I hope she’s happy with it, but if you have anything to say, better address me (anything that appears like trash to you is probably just bad translation and I take full responsibility, do not hesitate to throw canned tomatoes at me – without the can).

@evanarchiste

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Let’s be honest, it took us a while.

It took us a while to accept that we had to sit down, to look in the face of what was happening, to transcribe our anger on those pages, to articulate our different perspectives, one of them being vegan and antispeciesist, and to face the promotion given to this new “artwork”. Yes, it took us a while to realise that today, in 2014, we’re asked to be spectators of a performance showcasing a black person, just like us, behind the bars of a cage, in the name of Art. It took us a while to understand that this was real. After all, the shows and performances and films that we had seen – those public spaces from which we were constantly absent and erased – did not prepare us for the way Art chooses to represent us today. We were accustomed to the promotion of our exotic capital, on which many art institutions build their own capital. At best, we were getting used to the “Vénus Hottentote” remaining a nameless pain, a woman used as an example to denounce the animalisation of the black body, including, even, the dissection of its genitals – while the authors of such horror remain unnamed and undenounced. Yes, despite our lack of representation, despite the caricatures and the uneven perspective, we didn’t expect to see the promotion of an artwork such as Brett Bailey’s. The description reads:

“Caged women and chained men. Here are some of the tableaux presented in Exhibit B, in venues such as the espace 104 in Paris from the 7th to the 14th of December. The South-African artist Brett Bailey chose our colonial past as his theme.”

“Our colonial past”. A very hypocritical “our”, as it is only articulated around the servitude of black bodies for a museum exhibit. It’s been a couple of days since the first questionings about this exhibit’s racism were raised. Should we dare mention its cancellation across the English Channel, and we hear the outrage about censorship and attack on freedom of speech. A freedom of speech that is to be understood as one of depreciation of ethnic minorities as it has always been seen in the media.

Thus, Art is reason enough to justify the existence of this artwork. It’s so sacred that it remains exempt of society’s tendencies and values. It’s neutral land, untouched by the power struggles created by a Western society that refuses to mention race (let alone talk about it), a society that would rather believe in a nonsensical antiracism that refuses to say the word “black” and whose trademark is “I don’t see colour”. This continuous erasure of social issues linked to race is not without consequence.

It’s what allows us today to witness a discussion where people agree on the racial connotation of black bodies in this artwork, while simultaneously denying to consider the artist’s skin colour and its relevance to the subject. Today, still, white is a colour that cannot be named.

It’s what allows us today to witness the defenders of this exhibit arguing that it does denounce racism, while simultaneously denying the thoughts of the actual victims: the black diasporas.

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  1. LET’S TALK ABOUT RACISM – BUT NOT ABOUT RACE

To resume: a white South-African artist decided to recreate a colonial zoo, showcasing black people, in the same way colonial zoos did during colonisation and universal exhibits, for the entertainment of white spectators. We are thus invited to pay a twenty euro fee in order to relive this unique experience – watching caged black people. If the colonial zoo was a problem in the past, what is the difference with today’s exhibit, in Paris? This is the question we raised when facing unconvincing justifications for this exhibit:

  1. “Brett Bailey’s colonial zoo is meant to denounce”: the loyal recreation of human zoo would be a form of denunciation in itself, but how? In choosing to solely expose chained black bodies without representing domination mechanisms, whether it be through the absence of the actors (white colonisers) or of the institutions, we remain in a fantasy according to which our context (being a French society in 2014) speaks for itself. Indeed, who would create an actual human zoo in 2014? The museum exhibit preserves this “actual”, as if the museum as an institution were only a fictional ground, a special place free from our society’s xenophobia. Placing this institution out of its context, out of History, imitates racism’s mechanisms: it follows the belief that the past is entirely detached from the present. The artist counts on a contemporary pride that stems from the belief that our society today is so evolved that it’s post-racial – but, more importantly, that the colonial past is just that: past, done with entirely. Yet, colonial past, just like its friend racism, remains a latent oppression that continues to be perpetuated. Refusing to listen to the black diasporas denouncing this exhibit is yet another proof that the black body isn’t seen as valuable to the narrative unless it’s part of the story, but never as the author. The exhibition of chained black bodies, in its forced passivity, in addition to the absence of the colonisers, is a narrative choice that doesn’t denounce anything. All it does is maintain the colonial tradition that forces black bodies to remain quiet. Its exhibition has one goal only, and an awful one at that: alleviate the guilt while catering to the ego of the spectator, whose sole thought will be “what terrible things they did”, without realising that they themselves are participating in an effort to maintain the racist status quo.
  2. The black body, antiracism’s crash test: thus, the black body remains the crash test of the good conscience. “Let’s go to the museum, so I can see how I’ll react while facing animalised and chained beings!” The spectator will be able to brag about this afternoon of discovery, where their confrontation with a racist exoticism might bother them, surprise them, and maybe even disturb them a bit – an afternoon after which they will resume their daily activities. Brett Bailey creates a performance out of the black body, just like during colonial times, making everyone believe they have something to say about it. However, although each and every one of us may be able to say something about racism, not all of us suffer it.
  3. Black or white artist, does it make a difference? Wanting to denounce racism through the prism of an artwork when everybody refuses to acknowledge the skin colour of the artist pretty much sums up antiracism in France: “let’s talk about racism! But not about race!” It’s as if racism (whether it be today’s or yesterday’s) was confined within espace 104’s walls, for the duration of an exhibit. It may displease the artist and the artwork’s defenders, but racism isn’t about how good one’s intentions are. It’s built on a system of power struggles between the oppressors and the oppressed – and the latter constantly see their narrative and their voice stolen from them in order to justify just about anything. No one asked Brett Bailey to create this human zoo. No one asked for the animalisation of black people to be insisted upon whether it be in a need for catharsis, or as a duty to remember.

 

  1. A CALL FOR A BIASED OBJECTIVITY

It’s not uncommon for us, when facing the denunciation of the artwork’s racism, to be met with a cry for objectivity. It’s a very usual response to the denunciation of an oppression. “You’re too easily offended! You see racism everywhere!” Racism and xenophobia are commonly perceived as problems of sensitivity and subjectivity, the “you’re so easily offended” trope. It makes it easy to delegitimise the lived experiences of those victim of racism, forcing us to lose time and energy to explain why racism is racist. Here are the five most frequent responses we get:

  1. “You haven’t seen the exhibit yet!”: True. It’s actually not the first time the exhibit takes place in France, but social media has a way to dig up that which would want to remain unseen. The choice is actually simple. One can choose to pay in order to see the exhibit, out of sheer curiosity, all the while being a willing participant in racist entertainment and encouraging the idea that the artwork is only about caged blacks. This would justify the animalisation that seems to be the entire purpose of the show. But, after all, didn’t the minstrel shows showcasing white actors in blackface to make spectators laugh gather crowds? Who were there, obviously, out of sheer curiosity as well?

Or, one can choose to consider the basic concept of the colonial zoo as dehumanising and conclude that spending an “afternoon in the body of a coloniser” isn’t the healthiest way to reflect on antiracism.

  1. “But, what if it were a black artist? And if they showcased white men?” In trying to advocate for objectivity, our interlocutors see their subjectivity as neutral. Interchanging the races of the actors would seem to constitute a valid argument, but here are some reasons why it’s actually not the case:
    1. Not only do they then avoid the speak about race entirely, but they’re also taking extra care to avoid mentioning Brett Bailey’s and the majority of the spectators’ race, as well as the system’s race bias.
    2. To consider this kind of hypothesis is to see racism simply as “melanin levels that are too high”. Thus, it denies racism as a system based on the historic animalisation of black people (such an animalisation, needless to say, has never been inflicted on white people).
    3. Brett Bailey’s defenders make a big deal about the exhibit’s context, but will present any and all hypotheses to defend him. Its context remains the creation of a show by and for white people, to so-call denounce racism while using racist methods. However, if, the art work is not defendable within its context, what conclusion can we draw? That it’s racist.
  2. “Freedom of speech!”: the freedom to showcase a racist narrative in a public institution would then be more important than the dehumanisation of black bodies that is thoroughly encouraged by this exhibit, because “freedom of speech is a fundamental right”. When we know that that same freedom of speech is the most widely used argument by xenophobic politicians and intellectuals, it seems hard to understand how our interlocutors can deny a freedom that is theirs, but not everybody’s: the freedom of living, to be considered as a human being without fear of seeing your kind exposed in cages for the sake of an experiment.
  3. “It’s a museum! Nothing racist about that!” If institutions were exempt of all discrimination, never would the horror generated by universal expositions have existed, nor would hypnosis performances showcasing “hysterical” women have seen the light of day. French spectators enjoyed those performances, just like they enjoyed human zoos or the exhibition of sick people in front of hospitals.
  4. “There are black people who agreed to be showcased!” Choosing the participants of this exhibit as a safety net without taking into account the difficult economic situation or the complaints issued about the participation of certain workers is simply a desire to alleviate the white conscience. Despite this, let’s take a closer economic look at this situation.

Racism and colonialism had economic and capitalist purposes. Today, this continues to impact us. Indeed, let’s take a look at the way those actors were hired and paid. Bailey is paid while becoming somewhat famous and gaining a reputation as a must-see and a denunciator of racism. On the other hand, the actors were paid 110€ gross salary for a 3h performance (an amount of 120€ for the Gérard Philippe theatre). A reminder that those venues are paid for by public funding.

“What is fairly amusing is that the director pretends he created this project in order to denounce the power struggles between black and white people. Yet, there is no respect policy when it comes to the salary of the artists. He’s paid and continues chasing after fame. Meanwhile, at the 104, the artists were paid a 110€ gross salary for a 3h performance, and only 10€ more for the TGP. I believe this is a perfect example of cultural appropriation and ordinary exploitation.”

 

In other words, the institutions have never tried to stop the depreciation and animalisation of the other’s body. They have never protected the body of those oppressed (whether it be people of colour, transgender folks, queer people, women, not able-bodied, etc.) from the constant voyeurism that has transcended our History and justified number of discriminations, usually based on so-called scientific, psychological, historical or… artistic evidence.

The amount of tolerance given to Art, to Brett Bailey and to the ensemble of institutions in the promotion of this artwork is symptomatic of the current xenophobic climate, in France and in Europe. Hoping that museums become places of education and information, while loosely accepting just about anything from the proposed exhibits is condoning the discriminations faced by minorities and the way they’re taught. The deep apathy when facing the exhibition of a human being raises many questions about how sick our society really is. If you deem this kind of exhibition to be acceptable, then you believe humanity to be yet another glamorous object deserving of a place behind a wall of glass.

When facing such constant violence, we ask ourselves: when will racism shock you?

 

Thus, if after those couple of words, the presence of racism in a museum is too much for you, ask yourselves up to what point the general denial has allowed it to subsist; ask yourselves how far the wheels of this century-old oppression have come if, today, this exhibition shocks no one.

 

 

Thank you @evanarchiste for having translated this text.

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