Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Brett and Exhibit B

I have been properly unsettled by the many thoughts I have had over the banning of Brett Bailey’s performance art piece Exhibit B at The Barbican in the UK. I don’t think any art should ever be banned. But no, that isn’t entirely, 100% true. A starving dog was once on exhibition. That needed to be banned. I was convinced that the pig-cutting-up exhibition could have done with further curating. So I have blurred boundaries too it seems.

I need to say that I have not seen Exhibit B. I have seen (and loved and hated) lots of Brett Bailey’s work. I have experienced his work in turns as extraordinary, brave, outrageous, creative, radical, passionate, inappropriate, scandalous, successful, flawed, beautiful and even boring. His work is controversial. So is he. He likes challenging an audience. I like that too. I know that Brett is brave and strong, and when he makes work it is to shake things up a lot, especially notions of colonialism, black politics, identity, slavery, Africa and women. His interpretation of Medea was magnificent. Big Dada might have been one of my best ever theatrical experiences.

So, should we take Brett’s history into account when we talk about Exhibit B? Can we? Does the work need to stand (or fall) on its own? Is his work different in a South African context? If it is, is this its flaw? These are just questions I pose without answers, and here is the reason. You can’t tell people how to feel. I know that Brett is heart sore that the very people he was hoping to represent, to express, to give voice to in his piece are the ones that have formed the angry mob against his work being seen. Young, black and angry, some people in this mob have not even seen the piece (although, contrary to a lot of Facebook rage a lot actually have). And here is the deal. They don’t like what the piece says, for or about them. Should this make it banned? I don’t think so. It destroys any possibility of robust debate. it destroys any freedom of expression. It destroys the possibility of actually calling Brett on his stuff; intention, result, execution. It means that the artists (performers) do not get a chance to speak for themselves, outside of the silence they uphold during the exhibition. And we don’t know what they would say, in answer to the outrage, the accusations of racism, the calls for Brett’s scalp.

So, we don’t get a chance to decide whether the work is great or terrible. We don’t get a chance to analyse, debate, criticise, disagree. We effectively don’t get a chance to engage with the artist at all. What a waste.

But, I there is one thing that keeps niggling me and that is the nature of the work. It isn’t theatre. It is an exhibition. There is no story. So the audience is required to interpret, to give meaning to this thing. There is no actual narrative, no beginning, middle, end, no journey of characters traveling. It is in the eye of the beholder. And, certainly in my experience, you can tell (and show) people how you feel, but you can’t tell people what and how to feel. They will feel things, and it may not be what you want them to feel. With Brett’s other work, what he feels and the journey he is taking you on, however obscure, is still more visible, deliberate, accessible. That’s because it is theatre. There is a story. I wonder.

What do you think?



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  1. Adrian Galley

    Interesting thoughts, although ‘Exhibit B’ was not banned. The installation was no more banned than was Tsepo was Mamatu’s proposed presentation on the Cape Town Fringe. They were both ‘withdrawn’ following vociferous protests. Incidentally, I’m sure there are those who’ll argue that Wa Mamatu’s voice was silenced in precisely the same manner: those who spoke out could not have seen the work as it did not yet exist. Some of those opposed to ‘Exhibit B’ challenged the artist’s right to speak at all, on the grounds that he is a beneficary of apartheid. In both of these cases, it can be argued, we have been denied the chance to “analyse, debate, criticise, disagree”. But then that would be comparing apples with bananas. Or would it?

  2. Adrian Galley

    Full disclosure: My voice was among those opposed to Was Mamatu’s inclusion on the Cape Town Fringe.

  3. Rod Suskin

    Very true, Megan, I think you are right about this. I have been thinking that if he had done the identical thing but used white people, he would have got the same or stronger message across, and probably wouldn’t have had the inflamed reaction. You know more about these things – am I right about that?

  4. The thing that has struck me most about the whole Exhibit B debacle is who is allowed to tell whose stories. Brett, as a privileged white person is not allowed to tell black people’s stories. Does this mean, that as a white playwright you cannot create the voice of a black character and vice versa, that as a woman, you cannot create the voice of a male character (and vice versa), that as a black person you cannot play a piano or violin and as a white person you cannot play a djembe or African instrument? This list can go on ……. and when or at what point does it stop? And does it not deny the very essence of theatre – the imagination and the capacity to walk in someone else’s shoes? I have seen and had huge problems with alot of Brett’s work. But Exhibit B I loved. it was the first of his pieces that really made sense to me, that brought together the very VERY best of his skills, that blew my brains out and left me thinking and feeling for days.

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