Exhibit B and the Misadventures of White Anti-Racism, by Norman Ajari
December 1, 2014
The purpose of this text is not to take a position on Exhibit B, which I have not seen but seems to me to have elicited sufficient analysis. I am proposing an examination instead of the discourse of justification from intellectuals who have appropriated the issue by taking the side of artist Brett Bailey. Their defence is always the same: Exhibit B is an anti-racist work that has been misunderstood. I am going to try to show that this defence is unsatisfactory because that anti-racism is not convincing. The Exhibit B affair has revealed the paradox of the anti-racism some intellectuals profess, which is really just a cheap way of reconciling themselves with the most violent aspects of Western history without bothering to take the victims of racism seriously, that is, to think of them as participants in that history. The issue is then the status of such anti-racist discourse: Who does it affect? What might its impacts be?
The various descriptions of the form of this exhibit I have read have led me to conclude that it might be offering us an umpteenth variation on a major theme in contemporary art (in the broad sense) since Sade, which, as philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem has shown, has to do with a positive presentation of evil1. We can believe that, above all, short of any political discourse, the exhibition of Black people represents an opportunity to offer the public what it values and seeks: a transgressive sublimation of humiliation and historic violence. However, the fact that Africans were often involved with the wrong side is a godsend for the artist. Discourse purporting to be anti-racist is therefore couched in artistic grammar that gets all its breath, all its capacity to affect people and produce reactions from the now commonplace positive presentation of evil.
This form has consequences, however, as militants such as members of the Brigade Anti-Négrophobie2 have articulated, because the scene of the colonial violence has been cut off from its anti-colonial response. There is no outcome to the abjection. The spectator must face the exhibit's violence with no escape, with no way to answer. By making the colonizer's violent action against the colonized the ultimate point of their meeting, it depoliticizes that interaction. Instead of a dialogue, there is a univocal presentation of the victim's misery. This art form cannot incite action and political thought but only violent emotions. If we are to believe the outrageous Jean-Loup Amselle, Exhibit B offers white people an exercise in "repentance," a "ceremony of expiation. 3". He even goes so far as to take offence over such "self-flagellation" on the part of Brett Bailey and thus concludes with the embarrassing paralogism according to which the spectacle of beaten, humiliated and murdered Black people is no more disturbing than the unpleasant image of the colonizers. But the spectator does not see any colonizers. As for the famous "repentance," there is no reason to believe it would be, as Amselle zealously assumes, the key to reconciliation among the various components of post-colonial societies.
He reads this spectacle as the expression of an anti-racist romanticism through which the artist is exorcising his past by displaying black bodies before us as though we were taking a ride through the landscape of his afflicted subjectivity. This morbid ghost train we are on gets its political weight from a hackneyed process of contemporary art that tries to make us tourists on that train vicariously sharing the artist's fears and obsessions as we go by. What we must conclude when reading Amselle is that the anti-racism of Exhibit B is an ultimately fairly secondary means of accessing the perpetual display of evil and the sinister obsessions afoot in the creator's soul. To summarize, the exhibit has nothing to do with Black people but solely with a personal encounter with the artist's subjectivity and that of the visitors, whom Amselle invites to identify with Brett Bailey but not with the Black people in his exhibit, who are reduced to nothing but a shocking pretext.
Anti-racism for white people
Historian Pascal Blanchard has also responded to Exhibit B detractors. As we know, he believes it is necessary today to replay the spectacle of human zoos to soak them up and so better neutralize their effects. Regarding Exhibitions at Musée du quai Branly in 2012, of which Blanchard was one of the curators (feign your surprise here), Lotte Arndt noted that it portrayed mute, abandoned subjects of a moral rescue mission4. It is not surprising that Blanchard runs to the rescue of an artist who, for comparative purposes, chose a method like the one Blanchard promoted.
Although his response in this matter is predictable, Blanchard's words are still surprising: for example, he posits that human zoos are still not widely recognized as an inhuman horror on the same level as the Shoah or colonization and slavery5. Are not those demonstrating against Exhibit B doing so precisely for such recognition, made perfectly clear, of the horror of human zoos? That horror does not need support from a complacent public and to be repeated and replayed ad nauseam to be understood as a horror. And Blanchard launches zealously into an inventory of all the humans turned into sideshow freaks for gawkers to contemplate between the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Nubians, the Laplanders and the dwarves. He really wants it all repeated.
But, more than everything else, what revolts both Blanchard and Amselle is the fact that Exhibit B opponents delegitimize the artist due to the colour of his skin. According to Blanchard and Amselle, those against the exhibit want a Black monopoly on the representation of Black people. However, the current discussion shows that the problem must be approached differently: it invites us to wonder about the status of anti-racist discourse that grants no active place to people actually experiencing racism. It is anti-racist discourse that orders people experiencing racism to be silent when they demonstrate their disapproval because, ultimately, the white people engaging in that anti-racist discourse recognize that, as long as they only talk among themselves, it makes little difference if they borrow their words from Césaire or Arthur de Gobineau. It is how they react when Black people invite themselves to their table that concerns us. However, as for those whom the political message of Exhibit B must concern in the first place, Black people, that is, they are busy protesting under the watchful eye of the police instead of congratulating each other on its success and publicizing it. Therefore, those who are defending the exhibit must at least have the decency to admit that it is far from being the success they claim it to be.
With remarkably audacious demagoguery, Blanchard goes so far as to maintain that the intention of such a spectacle is identical for everyone and that we must refrain from dreading the famous measuring stick of communitarianism. Besides its formulaic nature, the problem of such an argument is that Exhibit B exclusively addresses the history of Black people. It is intended to present a series of depictions of Black people's humiliation. It claims to denounce the contemporary racism Black people are experiencing. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that Black people who have decided to express their disagreement with such an exhibit could have a particular legitimacy in speaking out. The protesters' slogan and sign "Respect our ancestors" does not mean that only Black people can talk legitimately about Black people, as the sophistry of the historian and anthropologist would have us believe, but it means that even artists and intellectuals who call themselves anti-racists cannot make that claim without acting with some decency. But their refusal to listen and welcome the words of Black people is so categorical that we must ask ourselves if the only effect of such "anti-racism" is to give white intellectuals a chance to congratulate each other on their open-mindedness and tolerance (at a distance from those they boast they "tolerate.")
Above all, we are led to believe that the only really anti-racist consequence of Exhibit B in the public space is the response and mobilizations against it in the streets. Its sole positive effect is the collective organization of refusal, which attests to that knowledge of the history of human zoos of which Blanchard claims to be the custodian, and "awareness," for which the magnanimous Blanchard credits the actors Brett Bailey hired. They wanted Black people to be the objects of the exhibit, but perhaps our intellectuals will learn that when the objects clearly object, the wise thing to do is shut up and listen to them.
Translated from the French by Ian Harvey, Jasper, Ontario, Canada.
1 Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Inesthétique et Mimesis, Paris, Lignes, 2010, p. 110.
4 Lotte Arndt, « Une mission de sauvetage : Exhibitions. L’invention du sauvage au musée du quai Branly », in : Mouvements, n° 72, Paris, La Découverte, 2012, p. 130. ( http://www.cairn.info/resume.php? ID_ARTICLE=MOUV_072_0120).
5 http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/culture/20141128.OBS6468/exhibit-b-ce-spectacle-n-est-pas-raciste-c-est-l- inverse.html.