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Zita Holbourne
Barbican's 'human zoo' is neither art nor empowering

'RACIST': Exhibit B

THE CAMPAIGN calling on the Barbican to withdraw Brett Bailey's racist and offensive Exhibit B show this month has gained the support of tens of thousands of people.

More than 15,000 people have backed a petition but there are thousands more from a broad range of anti-racist campaigns, black community organisations and trade unions who oppose it.

Among them is my organisation BARAC UK, Operation Black Vote (OBV), Unite the Union, PCS union, the PCS culture sector - representing union members in Britain’s museums and galleries, which includes The British Museum, the National Gallery and Liverpool Slavery Museum) - CRAIC (Irish Community Rights group), BEMA, Ligali, NUS Black Students Campaign and UpRise.

Yet the art elite and white liberals are disregarding our lived experience of the legacy of colonialism, apartheid, enslavement and oppression - insultingly suggesting that we should visit the exhibition so that we can be 'educated' and 'empowered'.

They refuse to understand - despite us clearly setting it out - that the re-enactment of horrific atrocities to African people is simply not liberating for those of us who experience racism daily.

From the disproportionate impact of austerity to the criminalisation of black communities, we are forced to fight racism in every aspect of our lives so the last thing we need to be confronted with is black people placed in cages, iron masks and shackled to beds awaiting the abuse of a slave master.

You don’t tackle racism by repeating the same racism.

If The Barbican and other arts institutions really want to address racism today, they should be talking to black anti-racist organisations about how to do this as well as showcasing the art of the huge number of talented black artists who rarely attract their attention.

As a visual and performance artist and curator, I create art that aims to challenge racism and injustice, but which presents a narrative on not only our experience of racism but our strength and determination to challenge this by documenting achievements and celebrating our history.

There is more to 'us' than the atrocities committed against us and does not reflect our whole history.

Our story did not begin and nor shall it end with these events.

I am currently curating the Roots, Culture and Identity exhibition which together with my collection Still Rising, Still Shining showcases the art of young black artists.

The art in our exhibition challenges the types of negative labels Bailey's exhibition seeks to apply to us but is also uplifting and liberating, celebrating who we are, where we have been and what we have achieved.

Black artists in the UK face multiple discrimination and disadvantage because of racism in the labour market, institutional racism in the arts industry and cuts to arts funding.

Arts institutions wishing to raise awareness of and challenge racism should be exhibiting the art of those who have a firsthand story to tell, not putting on a degrading display of black people, semi-dressed, chained and caged.

But this exhibition was never for us as an audience.

It is an exhibition by a privileged white man who benefited from the oppression of African people in the country [South Africa] in which he grew up, which objectifies black people for a white audience.

The Barbican claims that the exhibition challenges racism and will challenge people's thinking, but are those who hold racist views really going to make an effort to go and see this exhibition?

At a time when migrant and black communities are being scapegoated as the reason for a lack of jobs, housing and services and the coalition government is scaremongering and pandering to UKIP, some of the features in Exhibit B, such as an asylum seekers being deported and refugees labelled as ‘found objects’ will simply reinforce the negative stereotypes.

I can't imagine your average BNP or EDL member is going to say to themselves 'well I'm a racist, I think this exhibition can cure me' and organise a family day out to the exhibition and come out the other side with a change of heart.

If anything, for any racists visiting, it would simply reinforce the negative and narrow views they already hold.

As for the art industry supporters of the exhibition, they need to recognise that in the same way you can't use 'freedom of expression' as a defence for inciting racial hatred, simply labelling something art does not remove the racist nature of it and it should never be justified in this way.

Some critics of the campaign opposing Exhibit B accuse us of calling for censorship and are outraged by this treatment of 'art'.

It says a lot about them that they are not equally outraged by racism and the treatment of black and migrant communities in the UK and that they put art before the right of human beings to dignity and equality.

Art institutions need to look at how they have benefited from the legacy of colonialism and if they really are serious about empowering black people, make the reparations that are due and start to bring about economic empowerment and a level playing field for the descendents of those abused and used over centuries, off whose backs British institutions were built.

The Barbican has said we need to see the exhibition to better understand it.

I have seen several images and a video of the exhibition and I have seen enough to know how it makes me feel.

Last week The Guardian published an article entitled ‘The artists respond’ defending the exhibition and Brett Bailey.

Some are arguing that if the artists [involved] who are black endorse the exhibition then it can’t be racist.

My response on that is that the BNP, EDL and other far right groups have black members but this does not reduce the racist nature of such organisations.

In any case, the artists by now have invested in the exhibition and are getting paid.

There have been reports of artists who took part previously breaking down in tears and being abused and ridiculed by visitors which tells me that not all of them realised what they were getting themselves in to.

I wrote to the Barbican regarding this issue on two separate occasions, but its bosses could not even be bothered to respond to my second letter.

Barac UK then wrote an open letter to the chief executive, aldersmen, sheriffs and common councillors of the City of London Corporation who own The Barbican.

As a result of that letter, the chief executive is facilitating a meeting between the campaign and board members of The Barbican.

If the Barbican really wanted to engage with black communities the open letter would not have been necessary.

You can join BARAC UK and the coalition of organisations and individuals campaigning to bring a stop to the exhibition on Thursday, September 11, at 12.15pm when we lobby the City of London Corporation Common Council.

On Saturday, September 13, at 1pm at we will hand in our petition.

Details of both events can be accessed via

For updates on the campaign follow @boycotthumanzoo on Twitter.

Zita Holbourne is the co- founder of BARAC UK, elected to the TUC Race Relations Committee and PCS NEC and a poet, visual artist, writer and curator

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