Survey of Arts Management

Course blog for American University PERF-570, Fall 2014

Controversial Art: Exhibit B: ‘Racist’ human zoo installation criticised by protesters outside the Barbican

Bailey claims the human installation ‘seeks to subvert the disturbing nineteenth and twentieth-century human zoo phenomenon’.

‘Racist’ human zoo installation criticised by protesters outside the Barbican

Full Article by the Independant here 

What is art and who is qualified to tell it”–  Is the last comment BBC news reporter makes after discussing Exhibition B: ‘Human Zoo” at the Barbican Centre in the UK. 

She raises an interesting question; one that we as arts managers will likely face time and time again while programing exhibitions, plays, musicals, concerts etc..

The particular exhibition under discussion here, created by the South African artists Bret Baily, was intended to critique the ‘human zoo’ phenomenon of the 19th and 20th century. His work is highly controversial and disturbing. And while the artist’s intent was to “empower rather than exploit”, his human installation successfully created outrage among viewers in the UK and beyond.  In fact has created a plea for the withdrawal of his traveling human exhibition now garners more than 22,000 signatures. 

Many people have begun to label the artists as white racist, while one of the hired african performers says “Exhibit B has changed my life! Not only has it educated me, but it also gave me the chance to educate others,”- Rania Modi, a performer in the show, unrelated to the image.

This exhibition and the public reaction pose some interesting questions for us.

How would you as an arts manager deal with such a highly sensitive and uncomfortable situation? On the one hand we want art to be provocative and make people think…on the other we want to avoid these type of uncomfortable and not politically correct situations. Or do we..? What makes art art and what makes it not art? Who decided where the line is between the two and how did they know where to place it?

What do you guys think of situation and what can we learn from this situation?

*** Side note: I am not a fan of this particular exhibition.


3 comments on “Controversial Art: Exhibit B: ‘Racist’ human zoo installation criticised by protesters outside the Barbican

  1. benjamendouglas
    September 18, 2014

    I have mixed feelings about the exhibition, but I often struggle with the question of “what is art.”

    The woman carrying her mattress around school. Is that art?
    Is Miss New York playing a cup on stage art?

    Sometimes I wonder. And then I wonder, “who gets to make that decision?”

  2. qfloyd
    September 18, 2014

    This is art because art tells the truth. It is not offensive nor uncomfortable. It’s history, it tells a story. What the Barbican did here was take a full-length mirror to show their audience what they so easily forget about or choose not to believe. Art is subjective and this would definitely evoke emotions from all audiences.

  3. dianalfreeberg
    September 19, 2014

    I absolutely agree with Quanice. This exhibition is painful, but rooted in truth. History is ugly and brutal. To gloss over it or glamorize it would be a great disservice to the memory of the individuals who fought to change it. What I find fascinating is the response that the live images on display are receiving. Art should make you feel. It’s a common misconception that it will always make you feel “happy” or “joyful”. In this case the art is invoking very strong reactions on both sides. That does not make the exhibition less of a work of art.

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