What “Exhibit B” taught us in France


I was in Paris two weeks ago. One of the things I definitely was interested in during my few days stay in the French capital was the polemic and discussion regarding what was considered by some as an attempt at French’s principle of freedom of expression. Because I clearly expressed my opinion and support on behalf of French comedian Dieudonné Mbala Mbala earlier this year, I guess those reading my papers on a regular basis might be particularly curious to know where I stand in what is known as the Exhibit B case.

Brett Bailey & and his “Show” in France

Brett Bailey, a white South African artist and curator, also claims to be fighting against racism and injustice. The 47 years old man says that his art denounces racism and the fate many generations of Africans have been confined to for centuries. In his last creation known as Exhibit B, Brett Bailey who declared in a newspaper that he only became aware of the atrocity that the Apartheid Regime represented after the latter had collapsed displays different black people in situations illustrating the hardship the black diaspora has been through. The exhibition is clearly a reminder of The Great Exhibitions that existed in Europe until the first two decades of the twentieth century where black Africans were displayed in zoos besides animals for the delight of white European visitors. His artistic performance, as he calls it, has been travelling around the world for four years, but had to be canceled recently in Holland and Britain where it sparkled some vivid protests from the black community who blame it for being just another reproduction of the human zoos that existed in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century.

Lessons from Exhibit B

You will have understood it; I have and will always be against any form of ban or whatsoever preventing people to freely express their feelings and opinions -as long as they do not interfere with others’ freedom of opinion and thoughts, of course.  In my opinion, Exhibit B should not be banned, but it should clearly be denounced as part of an institutionalised racist process. The reason why I decided to write these few lines about Exhibit B today is more linked to what the discomfort and protests it arouses tell us about our society of the first two decades of the twenty first century. There is no doubt that the performances which took place in December in France -in Poitiers, Saint Denis, and Paris 104- were a human zoo reproducing what white European and American families found amazing, exotic, exciting and surprisingly or emotionally interesting in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Its creator claims that his piece of art is destined to make the French audience feel the atrocity and hardship blacks have gone through across history; however, some doubts remains on the effectiveness of his exhibition and its capacity to reach such goal in a still institutionally racist country.

A show for White folks

The piece of art he created seems, indeed, to be addressed to white folks only. It excludes black people since as argued by its author, the audience is supposed as an observer to feel guilt and compassion for those performing as victims of slavery and other atrocities under white European colonialism. If the face and, to some extent, the identity of the victims is clearly exposed, nothing is however said about the profile of the authors of such atrocities and humiliation inflicted to black people over more than 5 hundred years. According to the creator of the exhibition the observer has to imagine the guilty one; and, that was actually one of the main reproaches those against the exhibition tried to explain. The absence on stage of the perpetrators of such atrocities such as slavery and colonialism reveals the particularly “partial and biased illustration of a certain historical past that the exhibition B produces”.

No positive message to the Black community

Besides -according to the collective of associations and individuals fighting in order to have the exhibition suppressed –  showing blacks as mute victims does not give a positive and revalorising image of black folks, who tend to be scarcely represented in positive roles in French main stream media. It is clear that the too frequent representation of black people as victims and passive characters across History does not help the younger generations to “gain positive self-esteem and respect of themselves”. The question is the following: “Would an exhibition on the Jewish Holocaust with actors playing the victims and no one playing the role of the perpetrators of such inhuman conditions considered as a healer against anti-Semitism?” The answer is unlikely to be yes.

A paternalistic way of fighting against racism is racist!

Moreover, discriminations and the lack of positive representation of Blacks’ contribution to French social and cultural heritage are concerns that the Afro­-descents living in France have been pointing out for decades. It is unfortunately obvious that in France, as in colonial old days, the voice of black people still remains unheard. Their feelings and claims regarding their status and condition in the French society seem to be only taken into consideration when expressed and formulated through the Whiteman’s voice. Unlike their White counterparts, Black artists and creators are scarcely – not to say ‘never’ – given the possibility to use public funds to tell the stories experienced by their people through slavery and colonization. In other words, the black man’s story still remains a Whiteman’s tale.

And it is precisely these circumstances which make the happening of the exhibition Exhibit B an obvious construct of institutionalised racism; where a white South African man is allowed, and granted public funds so that he can tell part of the Blackman’s story while black men such as Dieudonnée M’Bala Bala and others have always been refused funds, grants and public money to deal with their own historical past.

Blame on the Black community

I personally think that Brett Bailey’s “piece of art” reveals more than just the way the history of the black community is treated in the Hexagon. His show also arouses important questions as well as possible answers on how and why Blacks’ fight for more recognition and respect in France appears unfruitful and inefficient when compared to that of the US or the UK. The Blackman’s condition in the Hexagon is from far worse than in most Western societies.

The French black community appears to some extent poorly efficient and too often unable to speak the same voice. The Brett Bailey case revealed dissentions within the black community, with celebrities like ex-football player Lilian Thuram, and some state funded black organisations as the CRAN supporting the artist’s initiative while blacks from the streets in their vast majority expressed through social media their discontent. The positive thing to be noticed in the fight against the South African citizen’s exhibition is however that the French Black community from the street is more and more aware and willing to make its voice heard. The Black popular anti-racist organisations led by youngsters have at last improved and evolved -even if I find it pitiful that the fight for Blacks’ rights in France seems too much to be moving at the pace of a poorly educated group of Black people who seem to have taken into hostage the Blackman’s cause for their own personal interests and career plans. In France, unlike what was the case in the UK for example, the people within the black community put in the front in the fight against Exhibit B were, as usual, people who have obvious difficulties in expressing their thoughts in the French language; which instead of revalorising the community gives that image of a retarded mob, angry and poorly articulate, who shouts and complains for its rights.

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