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Tuesday 14 July 2015

Open letter to the Galway International Arts Festival from Boycott the Human Zoo Campaign


Open Letter to the Galway International Arts Festival from Boycott the Human Zoo Campaign 

14th July 2015

John Crumlish, CEO, Paul Fahy, Artistic Director
Galway International Arts Festival
Administration Office
Black Box Theatre
1 Courthouse Square
Duke Road
Republic of Ireland

Dear Mr Crumlish and Mr Fahy

We the undersigned are writing to you regarding your inclusion of the racist installation 'Exhibit B'in the 2015 Galway International Arts Festival.

As the Boycott Human Zoo Campaign; a coalition of anti -racist, Black community organisations, arts organisations and trade unions, we want to be clear that Exhibit B is not simply a ‘controversial’ art installation; it is 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.

As the UK campaign group Boycott the Human Zoo and associated organisations, we engaged in extensive public consultation and dialogue with people across communities in the UK and internationally. The overriding opinion was that the performance installation ‘Exhibit B’ is racist and immensely offensive and the curator Brett Bailey's alleged ‘educational’ message is lost to the point where it is a parody of itself and manifests the racism it claims to challenge. In addition, Mr Bailey's evident lack of understanding of the subject matter, and his disconnect from the social and political climate, results in distress, anxiety, tensions and public protest as seen in the increasing global voice - which continues to increase exponentially - requesting that the work be decommissioned and removed from programming in their towns and cities globally.

The recent protest events seen in the UK, Paris, Amsterdam and Brazil are part of a global response to the constant and continued de-humanisation of Black and migrant communities across the world.  After consideration, the city of Toronto refused to allow the exhibition to take place there due to the negative impact and offence it would cause for Black communities.  It is simply not enough for the artist, commissioners and venues - all of whom are speaking from a position of white privilege and none who are qualified in determining what is and is not racist - to state ‘it is not racist’; and that their word is the final word. A consortium of experts in racism, prejudice, discrimination and inequality from across the world have on multiple occasions unpacked and explained the ideology and methodology of racism that is prevalent in the process and accompanying actions of both the artist and the commissioners and hosting venues, and why the piece and the commissioning process are both examples of how racism manifests in the 21st Century under the framework of inherited draconian and archaic decision making that replicates and reinforces its colonial origin.

Hosting this installation and ignoring the vast surge of public opposition suggests that whereby politicians, organisations, institutions and select individuals can set the parameters of what is acceptable and accessible or not, we – the voice of the people, and particularly the voice of Black  people and communities– have no say. Our voice is being censored whilst at the same time we are being accused of censoring art for standing up to racism. Our profound understanding of racism in both ideology and methodology is dismissed. That in and of itself  is a clear example of the systemic and institutional racism that continues to manifest in current times.

Our collective voices include those that have seen the exhibition and actors who auditioned and declined involvement as well as those that have participated. The collective voice resulted in petitions in several countries including 23,000 signatures in the UK and of 20,000 in France. in the UK the organisations that make up the Boycott Human Zoo Coalition total over a million people in membership.

Over one million people around the world are saying ‘No’ to ‘Exhibit B’ including politicians, academics, activists, community leaders, artists (writer, poets, rappers, visual artists and musicians) plus ordinary people, black and white.  Each one of us see it for what it is, highly offensive, deeply insensitive and a tool to uphold the system of white supremacy and privilege that allows this work to be projected on society, while reaffirming that the attitude of white superiority and automatic entitlement is somehow acceptable and unchallengeable and takes priority over all else.

The protests against ‘Exhibit B’ in the UK successfully related the message that this piece should not have been shown in the UK and its intended run at a London venue was cancelled. Our ongoing work clarifies why this 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.

The artists and commissioners of these kinds of offensive propaganda manifestations veiled as art are stating they wish to have equality of access to appropriate or misappropriate diversity of culture and life experience, while at the same time being completely devoid of that same said culture or life experience being any part of the initiation or fundamental decision making process. The result is a juxtaposition notion that it is somehow acceptable to have discrimination and under representation in the decision making process of the very meaning of what equality is. 

To suggest, as the artist does, that the mere existence of his piece is a form of anti-racism and initiates dialogue is an arrogant and subversive appropriation of the real work that goes on to challenge racism through honest and legitimate artistic, academic and political means and methods. ‘Exhibit B’ is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem – as can be seen through the vast protests and the subsequent treatment and depiction of the protestors.  The resulting irony of the modern-day dehumanisation, demonstration and harassment directed at those speaking out cannot be ignored.

It is incredibly naive and condescending of the artist and the supporters and funders of ‘Exhibit B’ to suggest that we somehow ‘don’t get it’. Not only do we understand on a profound level which the artist would never begin to understand; we do not know the issues by association, we do not understand the topic vicariously, we do not dip in and out at times of our own choosing and we do not engage by selective appropriation. We live with covert and overt - and all the subtle nuances of racism - and live with the consequences and legacy of historical racism daily.

This piece is a propaganda vehicle for the artist as we have observed though our close inspection and observation over the past year. The inconsistencies and contradictions in the artist’s explanation, justification and narrative of his work are evident to anyone who took the time to read the articles and social media posts by Brett Bailey. The artist revealed he neither understands the subject matter with which he is using as his artistic playground, nor the results of his folly.

The extremely misleading literature contained on the artist’s website provides statistics relating to where the installation has been shown and favourable reports, it does not however refer to the overwhelmingly larger number of people that have opposed its residency in their towns, cities and countries.

It is profoundly disturbing to see the sheer level of physical force used against Black people who speak out against ‘Exhibit B’. That the army was brought in and the protesters were tear gassed and pepper sprayed for standing up and exercising their right to protest in Paris, is directly connected to a resurgence of the civil rights movement reminiscent of the 1950’s that we see across America and around the globe.

Are the civil rights activism of the past decades and centuries to be forgotten so readily? Does the Galway International Arts Festival think this crude regression is the image the Republic of Ireland and the people of Galway want to send as a message as to how it views Black and migrant people?

Is one man’s quest to insult and offend, whether inadvertently or unintentionally or otherwise, of more importance than those who live in a country, where they are now revisiting the oppression and subjugation of the past that manifests in nuanced neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism, which condescends us with; “this is good for you”, “you misunderstand”, “you are uneducated” and “we know best”? An artist who reinforces racial stereotypes and actively practises racial profiling calling the intelligent campaign of opposition to his work an “angry violent mob” and dehumanising the protesters and feeding the stereotype of Black people in mainstream media. All this despite there being peaceful protest with no record of violent incidents.

It is essential to understand that the finance and resources available to the artist, producers and commissioners of ‘Exhibit B’ create a luxury of time and opportunity by which to voice their views. This luxury of time, finance and opportunity are not afforded to those who call for its decommission. That in itself reveals the inequality at play here and the systemic construct of white privilege that frames this matter. It is by no coincidence that there was an extraordinary imbalance of available resource between the campaign initiated by an African-Caribbean-British mother from Birmingham who was incensed enough by the racism of ‘Exhibit B’ to start an online petition and The Barbican and it’s all white senior management and board of governors who nonchalantly signed-off the commission without any consultation with, or understanding of, the communities who feature within this installation, a community who would ultimately pay the price of the racist installation.

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.

It is one thing to support art and freedom of expression, but it is something entirely different to support racism and propaganda guised as ‘art’- the publicity of which only serves to benefit one individual; the artist - who will ultimately be reaping the promotional and economic benefits long after the alleged installation ‘message’ is forgotten.

It is for all these reasons that we call on Galway International Arts Festival to decommission 'Exhibit B' from its program. 

As you have programmed 'Exhibit B' as part of your Galway International Arts Festival, we kindly request that you furnish us with all the details of your consultation process and those you engaged with - particularly from Black communities - in order to obtain your decision to proceed with this commission. 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.

There is a real opportunity for art institutions and politicians, who themselves are significantly lacking in diversity, to understand how we stop the cycle of inequality, division and discrimination and work together on the solution. The decommissioning of ‘Exhibit B’ is a start.

Yours Sincerely,

Sara Myers, Founder of Boycott the Human Zoo
Zita Holbourne, National Co-Chair Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) UK & PCS Union NEC, Poet, Visual Artist & Curator
Lee Jasper, National Co-Chair BARAC UK  & Movement Against Xenophobia Steering Group
John Mullen, Collectif contre Exhibit B, France
Marcos Ferreira, Contra Exhibit B, Brasil
Donna Guthrie, BARAC Women's Officer & UCU staff Unite Branch Executive Committee
Paul Richards, Creative and Educational Director of BrazenBunch & UpRise
Rosemary C Adaser, Founder Member, Mixed Race Irish
Sharon Murphy, Black Irish & Singer, Songwriter 
Ngoma Bishop, Author, Arts Campaigner, & Chief Officer of BEMA
Austin Harney, Chair Campaign for the Rights for the Irish Communities (CRAIC) & SERTUC Race Relations Committee Secretary
Zena Edwards, Spoken Word Artist & Creative and Educational Director
Adrienne Frye, British Black List 


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