Controversial Barbican show canceled after protest

Citing “the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff,” the Barbican in London has canceled its production of South African director Brett Bailey’s controversial installation “Exhibit B.” In a statement published on the organization’s website, the Barbican wrote that “it became impossible for us to continue with the show” after the opening was blockaded by 200 protestors. The exhibition features critical reenactments of racially charged historical scenes, including caged and shackled black people.

Though critically lauded — the Guardian called the work “unbearable and essential” — nearly 23,000 people signed on to a petition calling the show an “outrageous act of complicit racism.” The BBC reported that police were summoned to the site of the protests, which prevented the opening from taking place, but no arrests were made. Protest (and petition) organizer Sara Myers told the publication that they “shut the door and stood outside the door and drummed and chanted and blew our whistles and blew our horns.”

Controversy had been brewing in London over the charged subject matter of the traveling exhibition, which is headed to Moscow and Paris next, since earlier this month. The principle of reenacting historical racial oppression has, in different contexts, been staged to subversive ends. For example, in 1992, the artist and writer Coco Fusco performed “The Year of the White Bear,” a “pseudo-primitivist” display with performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Though Bailey’s project shares this point of departure — a critical reexamination of the ethnological exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries — the success of Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s project probably had little to do with flippant appeals to freedom of expression.