South African director confronts colonial masters

13 August 2014

South African production Exhibit B has been rated five stars by English newspaper The Guardian, which has described it as the “most controversial show” at this year’s Edinburgh festival.

A provocative installation, Exhibit B is based on the late 19th and early 20th century phenomenon of the “human zoo”, or “curiosity cabinets”, in which Africans were displayed in Europe and America.

The staging of the work is funded by the City of Edinburgh Council and Creative Scotland through National Lottery funding, and is supported by the South African Department of Arts and Culture.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 8 to 31 August this year, featuring work by more than 2 400 artists from 43 countries.

Set up in Edinburgh University’s library for the duration of the festival, Exhibit B is described in programme notes as “somewhere between performance and exhibition”. It comprises 13 set-piece exhibits or tableaux featuring black performers and examining themes of racism, othering and the colonial history of Europe in Africa.

The site-specific exhibit features Africans and African asylum-seekers, displaying the cruelty of colonialism – and turning the gaze back on Europeans. In some senses, the audience or spectator becomes the material.

The work is performed by a choir of four Namibian singers and 14 to 16 African immigrant and asylum-seekers living in the host city.

In attempting to reveal how black people were treated in the colonial period, the work is confrontational – and has stirred controversy since it first toured Europe two years ago.

Protests

In Berlin, left-wing anti-racism campaigners questioned the authority of Bailey, a white director, to tackle the story of black exploitation.

“This is the wrong way to discuss a violent colonial history,” Sandrine Micosse-Aikins, a member of Buehnenwatch, the organisation which instigated a demonstration against the work in the German capital, told Bloomberg at the time.

But Bailey, the Guardian says, seems to relish the entire spectrum of reaction. “I’m creating a journey that’s embracing and immersive, in which you can be delighted and disturbed, but I’d like you to be disturbed more than anything,” he told the newspaper.

Objectification

During a rehearsal in Edinburgh, the Guardian reports, Bailey told the locally assembled cast, who apparently were uncomfortable with the content of the show: “What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them.

“But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies. But other than that, they are just a catalyst.”

Bailey is the artistic director of the Cape Town-based Third World Bunfight company, which is “committed to making provocative, uniquely African theatre works of high quality which challenge stereotypes of Africa”, the company’s website says.

Third World Bunfight has trained and worked with “several hundred performers” in South Africa as well as in Zimbabwe and Uganda. They have collaborated with practitioners from Holland, Cote d’Ivoire, the USA and Zimbabwe.

SAinfo reporter