Blog Archive

Tuesday 17 March 2015


Artwork by Zita Holbourne

Last year my organisation BARAC UK, was part of a campaign to Boycott the Human Zoo.  The Barbican, an internationally acclaimed arts institution in London were hosting an art exhibition  by Brett Bailey which re-enacted the human zoos of the Victorian age, where black people were placed in cages on display for visitors like animals in a zoo.  Brett Bailey’s exhibits used real black people in different states of undress, chained and caged.   The campaign to boycott the human zoo was joined by hundreds of thousands; we were anti-racist organisations, black arts organisations, community organisations, trade unions and a broad range of creatives including artists, writers, musicians, rappers, poets, graphic designers. 

The Barbican refused to engage with us, we had to lobby and send an open letter to the City of London Corporation who own the Barbican before they would meet with us.  They told us that Exhibit B was important work but could not or would not answer who it was important for; they arrogantly told us it was not racist, but completely rejected our view that it was, disregarding our lived experience of racism and of the legacy of historic racism.

The aim of the exhibition we were told was to confront white people and make them feel guilty about racism, but there was nothing about the resistance historic or current to racist atrocities by black people, nothing about our achievements and the black actors in the exhibits were not allowed to speak.

March to the Barbican; Boycott the Human Zoo

The Barbican confirmed that they had not carried out an equality impact assessment of the exhibition or considered the impact on black communities – let alone consulted them, that they had only one single black member of their Board and senior management team and that none of them had any equality expertise.  They told us that they did not know who the black community was and when they took the decision to close Exhibit B on the opening night after we protested outside they branded us extremist and threatening.   News reports described  us as ‘dreadlocked, placard and drum brandishing ‘ who were ‘censoring’ art.  Our protest was loud but peaceful, there were no arrests, no injuries and no damage and suddenly the very arts that the Barbican as a major arts organisation should be promoting – musical instruments, songs, home-made placards and art work were deemed threatening by them.

Our campaign was anti-racist, not anti-art.  Many of those involved in the campaign were involved in the arts and culture sector.  We found the human zoo to be racist, a horrific insult, offensive and shocking. However we never called on the artist to stop producing his art, but on the Barbican to not host it, to take into consideration those who were negatively impacted by the exhibition.  

 They kept telling us we should go and see it but we had already watched still images and a video walk through of all the exhibits and that was horrific enough for us. The £20 entry fee would prohibit the majority of poor black (and working class white) families from visiting the exhibition even if they wanted to.  There was no education programme and no voice for black people in the exhibition.

The Barbican is situated in the city of London surrounded by a multi-cultural social housing estate including black and minority ethnic communities yet they claimed to not know who the black communities were.  There lies the problem.  Many of the productions involving black artists put on by The Barbican are featuring International artists.

Young black artists trying to build a career are barred from such arts institutions because of the institutional racism that exists which is now amplified by austerity measures.   If their art is focused on race, culture and identity they are told to go away and do something more mainstream on one hand but then are expected to fulfil narrow, stereotypical roles on the other hand.  Black actors for example are cast either as unsavoury characters, criminals, drug dealers etc. or all singing and dancing, not as doctors or lawyers or other professionals.  It’s because of this that many British based actors and musicians have been forced to pursue their careers in the USA. 

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Idris Elba, Actor

As austerity bites deeper, black people are amongst the hardest hit, when you are struggling to make ends meet - as poverty deepens even working families are forced to go to food banks - there is no money left over to spend on tickets to go to the theatre, music concerts or exhibitions.

Funding cuts for the arts mean that free or subsidised events that may have been available before have drastically reduced. A government commissioned report last year suggested that by 2015 local authorities would have zero budgets for arts and culture.  This means that opportunities to hone talents for young creatives as well as opportunities to attend art events are not there for the poorest.  It also means that work through the arts to promote equality and diversity, celebrate multiculturalism and mark religious and cultural events has been cut. London mayor Boris Johnson cut funding for Black History Month from £132,000 to £10,000 in 2010, funding for Jewish events were halved and funding for St Patrick’s Day was also cut. There has also been a cut in central government funding of £80 million resulting in 58 arts organisations losing their funding.  Black history month has been reduced in many boroughs to a tokenistic acknowledgment and in one of London’s most multi-cultural boroughs it has been reduced to one week and been renamed as Newham Heritage Week – completing disregarding the aim and purpose of Black History Month when it was first established.  In 2012 a concerned citizen served a freedom of information request on Newham Council to ask them what events they had held to mark black history month.  Their response was that for the week allocated for their ‘Heritage Week’ they had a one page article in their journal and that libraries had posters and displays of books about black history.   No public events, no storytelling, performances, speakers, exhibitions.  You would be forgiven for missing black history month all together if you were a Newham resident. Unfortunately this is not an isolated example.

Black Women in Focus art exhibition

Workers at London’s iconic museums and galleries are so poorly paid that they cannot even afford to purchase lunch in the prestigious areas they work and struggle to meet transport costs to and from work. Members of the PCS union at the National Gallery have taken three sets of strike action with more planned this month to oppose planned privatisation.

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Rally and Strike by PCS at the National Gallery

Last weekend I spoke at a conference on the future of arts and culture organised by trade unions and arts organisations and two young black artists Antonietta Torsiello and Samia Malik spoke in workshops about their experiences challenging racism in the arts industry. The conference was aimed at exploring the impact of budget cuts on and calling for public investment in art and culture. For every £1 invested in arts and culture up to £6 is generated for the economy.  2.5 people are employed in the creative industries. So it’s good for the economy but it’s also good for the soul.  Art promotes well-being and builds links and understanding. It is a powerful tool in education and therapies for development and healing.  Yet it is vulnerable and marginalised communities that have the least access. 

Speakers at the Future of Arts and Culture Conference

We should be celebrating the multi talents we have across all communities, faiths, ages, races and classes. Art should not be a privilege for the wealthy.  The UK has benefitted socially and economically from the arts brought to the UK by migrants over many decades and the sons, daughters and grandchildren of those migrants should not now be prohibited from participating in and enjoying the arts because of institutional racism in the sector or cuts and austerity.  Economic recovery needs growth but the government have disregarded the economic benefit of the sector.

Front left: Samia Malik, Speaker, Front Right, Antonietta Torsiello, Speaker

There’s an urgent need for an alternative vision for arts and culture which is inclusive not exclusive, that is publicly funded and accessible for all. Art and culture is for everyone.  #showculturesomelove.

Video of artist, designer & activist Samia Malik speaking in a workshop at the Future of Arts and Culture conference.

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