Exhibit B and Human Zoos

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Louisa Olufsen Layne

Date:  2 July  2015


At a well-attended Race and Resistance network seminar on 29th of May, the focus of a roundtable discussion was a highly controversial issue: contemporary human zoos and the strategy of historical re-enactment.

After the criticised, and eventually cancelled, performance of Brett Bailey's Exhibit B at the Barbican in 2014, many questions and concerns have been raised. It soon became evident that aim of the panel was not to achieve a consensus in the room about these complex issues, but to begin to approach these questions from three slightly different angles:  through art historical contextualisation, political awareness of the on-going problems with race in Britain, and a comparative overview of human zoos and their various manifestations today.

Tamar Garb (University College London) started by outlining how 20th century artists have used the strategy of re-enactment to address stereotypes, ethnicity, and racism. She focused on performance artists that have played with viewer’s expectations of authenticity, primitivism, agency, and the exotic ‘other’. In several of the examples given, exploring blurred distinctions between the subversive and the complicit body has been an important component of the artworks and their reception.

 Yvette Hutchinson (University of Warwick) gave the audience a brief overview of Bailey’s previous projects, and presented some comparative examples of contemporary human zoos, discussing how re-enactment has been executed in different ways in distinctive contexts. She also addressed how contemporary artists, particularly in South Africa, have experimented with alternative strategies in order to address historical trauma without running the risk of re-inscribing or reproducing the injustice they set out to criticise. 

Deirdre Osborne (Goldsmiths) gave her account of what it was like to be part of the demonstration against the exhibition and explained the protesters’ motivations. She brought attention to numbers revealing that black British people are underrepresented in academia and in most ‘elite’ cultural institutions in Britain. It is against this backdrop that such an exhibition becomes highly problematic, according to Osborne. She was also critical of the panel composition and the lack of BME students and academics in the room, which was something all the panellists agreed that they felt uneasy about.

Although the discussion never evolved into a polemical debate, the ambivalence expressed raised questions that will continue outside the room and into the future.


Louisa Olufsen Layne is a DPhil student in English writing about Linton Kwesi Johnson.


Voices Across Borders is always looking for new Race and Resistance Research network members to contribute to this blog. If you would like to write a piece, or if you have a response to a blog entry you have read here, please e-mail the Voices Across Borders editor, Tessa Roynon: tessa.roynon@ell.ox.ac.uk

The viewpoints expressed in Voices Across Borders are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Oxford.


Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century

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