Exhibit B is an internationally acclaimed “art” exhibition, by white South African playwright Brett Bailey.
It replicates human zoos of the Victorian age, using black actors to re-enact scenes of abuse and torture that African people were subjected to during enslavement and colonial rule.
Actors in the exhibition, who must remain silent, are blacked up, placed in cages and iron masks and shackled.
There is no narrative on the resistance by African people and no acknowledgment of our history before or after these events.
In some other countries there have been protests, petitions and written complaints, but the Barbican and Bailey had not anticipated the level of resistance from black communities bringing it to London would attract.
During the campaign, it became very apparent that the Barbican has no expertise in race equality and no diversity in its own organisation, with one single black member on its board.
When we initially wrote to the Barbican with our concerns in August they replied, stating that Exhibit B was empowering and educational, trying to tell those of us that have a lived experience of the legacy of historical and current racism that we need to be educated on racism by them — a nearly all-white institution.
How the Barbican could believe an exhibition which objectifies black people in a degrading and offensive way, repeating horrific acts of racist abuse could be empowering to us is beyond me.
A criticism levied against us by the Barbican and others is that we had not seen the exhibition so how could we be against it?
But you don’t wait until you have been racially abused to point out that racism exists.
When we asked the Barbican board and management if they had seen it, only one single member had. So if they were arguing we couldn’t conclude it was racist because we hadn’t seen it, how could the Barbican management say it was not racist when they had not seen it either?
For us seeing the images and videos of the exhibition were horrific enough.
Over and over, in meetings, at protests and lobbies and in writing we explained to the Barbican why we found Exhibit B to be racist and we were told that it was not racist because the Barbican did not believe it was — completely disregarding the impact on us.
Some 23,000 people signed an online petition started by Birmingham activist Sara Myers.
The organisations making up the campaign, including my own union, PCS and Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac) UK represent over one million members.
PCS culture sector group president Clara Paillard, representing workers in museums and galleries, said: “We supported the boycott because we believe that art should not be used to disguise or promote racism.”
The campaign was also supported by Unite which represents members in the City of London Corporation branch which covers the Barbican.
Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, wrote to the director of the Barbican raising its concerns.
“To challenge racism requires a sustained commitment, not a one-off production, and there needs to be the active involvement and engagement of those who continue to experience racism.
“To stage a production that is clearly offensive to many — who view it as a re-enactment of racism, demeaning and patronising — indicates a Barbican that is not sensitive to the views of black people, black organisations and those actively campaigning against racism.”
Despite ongoing attempts at dialogue with the Barbican, where we pointed out that black communities should have been consulted, it was not prepared to consider our concerns let alone the hurt, pain and anger we felt.
Director of arts Louise Jeffreys outraged audience members over a last-minute “damage limitation” event, when she stated they did not consult black communities because they did not know who black communities were.
The meeting we had with the Barbican board came about because I wrote an open letter to the City of London Corporation chief executive and elected council after it failed to respond to my second letter.
Yet Barbican director Sir Nicholas Kenyon told the Sunday Times yesterday: “He was taken by surprise” and “when we heard a couple of weeks ago that a petition was being organised against the show, we invited them in.
“They came to see us, including one of our board members, Trevor Phillips, who is of course black.
“We heard their concerns, but pointed out they had misunderstood the work. They went away promising there would simply be a peaceful protest. But on the evening of the planned first night, it turned nasty. Frankly, I feel we were used.”
Following that meeting we organised a march and rally outside the Barbican and a further petition hand-in demo because the Barbican failed to provide a senior member of staff as promised to receive our petition the first time round.
On the opening night Kenyon stopped to greet me on his way into the exhibition. Hardly a nasty atmosphere.
The Vaults venue sought to shift responsibility responding to my letter by saying: “The Vaults is a neutral space, we are just hiring the space to the Barbican.”
As I pointed out to them, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
On the opening night of the exhibition, 200 protesters gathered at the Vaults, which is in a narrow underground tunnel.
The protest was noisy but peaceful. Protesters closed the entrance doors and drummers lined up in front of the entrance. The organisers called the police, suggesting there had been a fight — which there had not.
We subsequently learned that riot police had been deployed to the Barbican, mistakenly believing the exhibition was taking place there and that they arrived way before the time of our planned protest so not in response to any concerns, which is disgraceful.
Subsequently the venue announced that it was closing for the night and protesters started to leave.
It then issued a formal statement that the entire London show was cancelled.
We departed, pleased with this news, if frustrated that it had taken until the opening night for it to happen.
What followed was a vicious attack on black activists and communities opposing the exhibition.
The Barbican put out a statement accusing us of stopping freedom of expression.
It also said: “Last night as Exhibit B was opening at the Vaults it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.
“Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece.”
This statement was irresponsible and cowardly. Police have confirmed publicly that there were no arrests, no damage to property and no injuries. Yet the Barbican intentionally used the terms “extreme” and “threat.”
The venue was in an underground tunnel. It would have been easy for police to cordon off the area for subsequent nights, only allowing those with tickets to enter.
The truth is that the Barbican had underestimated the strength of feeling and resistance.
There was nothing extreme about the protest, yet supporters of Bailey, “defenders” of art and sections of the media reported that we brandished placards and drums and acted threateningly by singing and blowing brightly coloured whistles.
Comments were even made about our hair — “many of them had dreadlocks.” We were branded racists, fascists and extremists.
But to be racist we would have to have power. Racism occurs when prejudice, privilege and power join forces.
Tellingly, journalists who were there reported that our protest was welcoming and peaceful, but those who had not been there described us as an angry threatening mob, relying on the Barbican’s statement. Some even incorrectly reported that our protest took place outside the Barbican.
We have been accused of censoring art and stopping freedom of expression. We were told that we have done a terrible thing to art.
But our boycott campaign in fact involved a wide range of artists — visual artists, musicians, rappers and poets.
As a visual and performance artist myself, I am passionate about art — but if my work greatly offended hundreds of thousands of people I would act responsibly and acknowledge this.
I am an artist but I am also a human rights and anti-racism campaigner and I don’t see the rights of people as being lesser than objects of art.
People are outraged that art has been treated this way, but the same people were not outraged by the pain, offence, hurt and anger we experienced because of the Human Zoo exhibition.
They are not offended by the institutional racism that black communities experience today.
The reason we came together in a short space of time to oppose the Human Zoo is because we have had enough of racism, criminalisation of our communities, the disproportionate impact of cuts on our families, the scapegoating, scaremongering and demonisation.
As racism deepens, the last thing we need to see is acts of historical racism promoted and celebrated as art while those involved profit from the £20 entrance fee.
The Barbican has told us repeatedly that Exhibit B is important work. When we asked who it is important for they couldn’t answer.
The truth is that Exhibit B was never for us. The entrance fee alone would prohibit most austerity-stricken black (and white) working-class families from attending.
If it was really supposed to be educational it would have been free and open to many more people.
If Bailey really wanted white people to know what racism feels like he would have put white people in the cage, mask and shackles.
There are many other ways to educate on the horrors of historic racism, but any such project must also seek to address the racism we face today. They should be inclusive not exclusive.
Dr Richard Benjamin, who heads up the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, wrote to me saying: “Congratulations to you and your colleagues for making your voices heard. For me there is nothing more important than the culture sector being subject to such scrutiny. The International Slavery Museum has a very clear ethos, we are a campaigning museum and as such use the museum and its content to challenge views/actions/ideologies that persist today.”
The response to Exhibit B by black communities in London must send a message to British arts and culture institutions that they must practice equality — they must consult the diverse communities they serve and nurture the artistic talents that exist in those communities.
The institutional racism that exists in the sector must be addressed. My decision to try and tour an exhibition showcasing the talents of young black artists despite having no budget, funding or sponsorship is exactly because young black artists do not get the opportunities that white privileged artists like Bailey get.
Barac UK and others see a need for a new black arts movement to nurture talent in our communities because we know we can’t rely on the institutions.
Zita Holbourne is an award-winning trade union and community activist, poet, visual artist and curator. She is co-founder of Barac UK and has been elected to the PCS NEC, TUC race relations committee and ACTSA NEC.