T.O. Molefe

CityPress - - Voices -

The art world can, at times, be fatu­ous and va­pid. I was re­minded of this by artist Brett Bai­ley’s lat­est per­for­mance piece, which he says ex­plores the muted racist his­to­ries of Euro­pean pow­ers. The idea for the piece, ti­tled The Ex­hibit Se­ries (A, B, C & D), came af­ter he read about “hu­man zoos” – the liv­ing-hu­man ex­hi­bi­tions of 19th­cen­tury Europe.

The liv­ing-hu­man ex­hi­bi­tion we’re most familiar with is that which fea­tured Saartjie Baart­man, who was ex­hib­ited in Bri­tain and France. It was cruel and de­hu­man­is­ing.

Euro­peans paid to ogle her sem­i­naked body and con­sume fur­ther helpings of a racist ide­ol­ogy which claimed what set her (and other Africans) apart from Euro­peans was that she was “prim­i­tive” and there­fore in­fe­rior. When she died, she was dis­sected and some of her body parts, which sci­en­tific racism of the day said were “ape-like”, were on dis­play at a mu­seum in Paris un­til 1974.

There were oth­ers be­fore Baart­man and many af­ter her. The ide­ol­ogy spurred Euro­pean coun­tries to for­malise their claims to most of the African con­ti­nent, and other parts of the world, be­liev­ing them­selves to be a civil­is­ing force. In re­al­ity, they were any­thing but.

Bai­ley be­lieves Euro­peans have for­got­ten the sys­temic prej­u­dice, ex­ploita­tion and bru­tal­ity of this his­tory, so he’s stag­ing a hu­man zoo of his own to re­mind them.

Sup­ported by our arts and cul­ture depart­ment, Ex­hibit B from the se­ries will show in Lon­don next month, having shown in other Euro­pean cities af­ter a pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tion was un­veiled at the Na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val in 2012.

It is a mu­seum-style ex­hibit that takes visi­tors through a se­ries of in­stal­la­tions re­count­ing the his­tory of hu­man zoos. It con­nects the zoos to mod­ern-day prac­tices such as how African refugees are treated in Europe.

There’s one in­stal­la­tion about the Herero and Na­maqua Geno­cide, a pre­lude to the holo­caust per­pe­trated by Ger­many in Namibia. There, too, hu­man parts were taken to Europe for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and dis­play to re­in­force the idea that Africans were in­fe­rior. There’s also an in­stal­la­tion hark­ing back to Bel­gium’s rub­ber plan­ta­tions in the Congo where black men, women and chil­dren were forced to labour. Of­ten, those who didn’t meet their rub­ber col­lec­tion quota had a hand chopped off to scare oth­ers into work­ing harder.

And of course, the ex­hibit also fea­tures in­stal­la­tions of Baart­man and apartheid his­tory.

It is un­doubt­edly well re­searched and skil­fully de­liv­ered. But ap­par­ently what makes this art is that Bai­ley hires black ac­tors as ex­hibits in the in­stal­la­tions, like how Hen­drik Cezar “em­ployed” Baart­man in his hu­man zoo.

The performers do not move or speak. They only main­tain eye con­tact with the au­di­ence.

Bai­ley’s use of liv­ing peo­ple is in­ex­pli­ca­ble, other than for its shock value. He re­lies on the no­tion that the anachro­nism of see­ing liv­ing Africans de­hu­man­ised in this way in the present day will shake Euro­peans from their stu­por about their racist his­tory.

This is mis­guided. Hu­man zoos, and in­deed in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism, have always been cog­ni­tively jar­ring to those Euro­peans will­ing to in­ter­ro­gate the racist ide­ol­ogy into which they were so­cialised, even in 19th-cen­tury Europe. The fact that ex­hibit­ing Baart­man was chal­lenged in a Lon­don court by Bri­tish abo­li­tion­ists is ev­i­dence of this.

As it was then, those un­will­ing to in­ter­ro­gate the racist ide­olo­gies that built Europe and brought mis­ery to other parts of the world will not be moved by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a hu­man zoo or any of the other in­for­ma­tion on dis­play in Bai­ley’s ex­hi­bi­tion.

The re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion is that Europe’s racist his­tory isn’t muted or for­got­ten. Euro­peans and their di­as­pora have not cre­ated a col­lec­tive con­scious­ness with the words and ideas to de­con­struct the his­tory, which is freely avail­able.

It’s also mis­guided be­cause in­dige­nous peo­ple here and else­where daily live the dis­or­der wrought by Euro­pean im­pe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism. Liv­ing un­der th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences has forced us to forge re­sis­tance ide­olo­gies and re­ject the con­structs into which Euro­peans have tried to force us. See­ing a re­cre­ation of the racist tech­niques by which we were de­hu­man­ised does lit­tle for our cause.

This is why black peo­ple have protested against Bai­ley’s hu­man zoo in many of the cities it’s been dis­played. At present, there is a pe­ti­tion call­ing for the ex­hi­bi­tion’s Lon­don show­ing to be can­celled. If Bai­ley has even an inkling of con­scious­ness, he will heed this call.


HU­MAN ZOO Artist Brett Bai­ley has hired black ac­tors as ex­hibits in his ‘hu­man in­stal­la­tions’ to ex­plore the racist his­to­ries of var­i­ous Euro­pean pow­ers

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