Occupying an uncomfortable interstice between art and theatre, performance art has often failed to attract the same attention as its cousins in the visual arts. Until recently, Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović were the only notable exceptions; now, they have a reluctant bedfellow in Brett Bailey. The South African’s Exhibit B has rapidly become one of the most widely covered cultural events of the year, premiering at the Edinburgh International Festival to 5 stars from Lyn Gardner, who lauded its re-enactment of European colonial history as ‘both unbearable and essential’. Yet somewhere between Edinburgh and London, the tide of opinion turned against Exhibit B, swelling into a 23,000-strong petition for its cancellation.
Introducing the (successful) petition, Sara Myers addresses her audience in a voice at once pugnacious and wearied. “I’m a Black African mother from Birmingham,” she says. “I campaign and work with my community to try to breakdown the stereotypes that black people have to struggle against in society on a daily basis. I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now”.
What is remarkable about Myers’ words is how strikingly they recall those of the South African poet Njabulo Ndebele, whose ‘Be Gentle’ I quote here in full:
Be gentle gentle on my mind,
please do be gentle,
do not crowd my mind
with studied images of my past;
let me feel it first:
do not display my carved rituals
at the British Museum,
for little do they say;
let me feel them first.
It is the fairy tale in me,
the story book:
that is the pure tale of my being.
do go gentle on my mind,
Despite its situation in the intellectual hinterlands of Contrast, the poem is notable for its arrival in 1971, on the eve of what, in The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences, Peter D. McDonald calls ‘the most repressive period of literary censorship’. The susurration of ‘gentle gentle […] please do be gentle’ and ‘softly please, soft’ is not mere euphony; it is euphemism. The speaker’s entreaty is tactically plaintive (compare his ‘let me’ with Myers’ ‘I want’), his suppliance only faintly masking the sulphuric smell of dissent.
Yet the smokescreen of Ndebele’s euphemism only truly begins to clear when read intertextually, set within a literary atmosphere of sedition. As Apartheid restrictions on free speech forced from its poets even greater verbal opacity in their individual work, writers sought to combine their texts to form a patchwork protest. Understood in this way, Ndelebe’s ‘gentle’ and ‘soft’ stand in opposition to the ‘dry white season’ (l.1) spoken of by Mongane Wally Serote in ‘For Don M. – Banned’ (its title a nod to Don Mattera, a standard bearer of the anti-Apartheid movement, and so inevitably one of the regime’s hardest hit). Far from terms of appeasement, they are weapons of reclamation, of replanting ‘the trees’ that ‘know the pain as they stand erect / dry like steel, their branches dry like wire’ (Ibid, ll.6-7). All, says Serote in a purring reinforcement of Ndebele, is ‘gently headed for the earth’ (Ibid, l.3).
Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B
Read in tandem, the poets’ strategic ‘soft[ness]’ rapidly hardens. Somehow, the pressure put upon Apartheid era poets by the censor’s watchful eye crystallises into an argument whose clarity inheres in its inability to be communicated explicitly. We might, however, gesture at its central opposition (one that maps quite distinctly onto a racial opposition) as between two conceptions of the self and its history: as cerebral, written, ‘dry’ (white), and as bodily, felt, ‘soft’ (black). To harmonise Ndebele and Serote’s voices is to hear something revolutionary: that white rule is transient, a passing ‘season’ in the ‘pure tale of my being’.
Spelt out so crudely, Myers’ collusion with these writers is obvious, though perhaps unconscious. In fact, her statement hides behind the harmlessness of idiom (‘on a daily basis’) to oppose Exhibit B’s drily ‘studied image of my past’ with the presentness of her lived
Scene from Exhibit B, Brett Bailey
experience; ‘let me feel it first’. Yet to read Myers is in this way is to turn her argument against itself. Surely, if history is to be configured within (‘the fairy tale in me’) rather than projected onto (‘crowd my mind’) the individual, it must be an activity, rather than a totem (‘the thing of the past’). The only way to prevent the ossification of ‘studied images of my past’ is the taking of ‘backward steps’, the bodily revisiting of a past that is mobile, not monolithic.
At this point, Ndebele’s seemingly facetious ‘fairy tale’ becomes quite deliberate, hinging upon the non-synonymity of ‘pure’ and ‘fixed’, ‘tale’ and ‘history’. A ‘tale’ is defined as ‘a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted’ (OED 1, emphasis added). What is essential is that the tale is amorphous, reconfigured with each ‘imaginative recounting’. Somewhat counterintuitively, it is this fluidity that makes it ‘pure’. Ndebele’s semantic refinement is to shift purity away from an immutable essence towards something like authenticity, a state of self truth forever being negotiated in ‘my being’, both in the participial (in the act of the speaker’s existing) and in the nominal sense (through the speaker’s physical body).
These related concepts – of imaginative recounting, and bodily revisiting – dovetail in Exhibit B, whose innovation is to recreate colonial atrocity with performers, rather than waxworks. Myers’s invocation of the ‘human zoo’ is understandable; even anticipated, as one performer asks: ‘How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?’. However, it is a straw man. This is best illustrated by way of example: Exhibit B includes a performer playing Angelo Solomon, a Nigerian slave held up at the turn of the 19th century as the zoological archetype of the “African race”, and who upon his death was skinned, stuffed, and displayed in the Natural History Collection of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. For imperial pleasure-seekers, the difference between a colonial curiosity dead and alive was negligible; zoos housed animated taxidermy.
Myers’ accusation of racism has roots in this a perception of the racial other as a source of entertainment, the belief that ‘the black body is only ever represented, never experienced’ (Radhika Mohanram, Women, Colonialism and Space, p.20). Yet crucially, Bailey is at pains to synchronise the experience of the black body with its representation. It is thus less significant that Exhibit B features human beings, than that it features humans, ‘being’. The oversight of those petitioning the Barbican, those who largely refused to see the performance, is that its most striking feature is the performers’ unbreakable gaze. Far from a thousand-yard stare, their look is razor-sharp and almost flagrantly accusatory. In a reversal of the white man’s gaze that both defiantly returns it, and turns it introspectively upon itself, it is a powerful antidote to Mohanram’s assertion that ‘[t]he black man is hypervisible yet invisible simultaneously, but he himself lacks ‘perspective’’ (Women, Colonialism and Space, p.26). Exhibit B is as much about seeing as it is being seen.
Yet the performers are not endowed with ‘perspective’ simply to persecute the spectator with his gaze, but so that the pair can look at one another as history is not merely reenacted, but relived. It could be said that this collective backwards step, the same spoken of by Myers, is deeply South African. Its most notable manifestation was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the quasi-judicial court whose guiding principle, ubuntu, was articulated most authoritatively by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them so they can heal’. The defining moment of Exhibit B is not when spectator and performer look at each other, but more precisely when they look into one another, and ‘the wounds of the past’ are reopened for healing.
Like Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah, Myers races from the shame of a ‘barbaric’ past towards a ‘world’ free from ‘struggle’. Yet in so doing, she leaves ‘the dead [to] lie in dust and nothingness’ (Yael Farber, Molora, p.24). These words, a South African recycling of an Aeschylan recycling, are themselves a testament to the necessity of repetition for historical sense-making: Farber adapts Aeschylus by figuring the internecine conflict of the House of Atreus as cathartic retellings of Apartheid given at the hearings of the TRC. She thus delivers a lesson Myers has since unlearnt: that ‘being’ in the past is not a reinstatement, but a restorative reimagining of history; that unspooling ‘the fairy tale in me’ might be the only way to break ‘a circle with no end’ (Ibid, p.76). Far from heralding a brighter dawn, Myers’ reification of ‘the thing of the past’ leaves her marooned within it—‘Then,’ says Elektra, accursed daughter of the House of Atreus, ‘we nothing but history without a future’.