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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

An Arts Controversy in London… In My Opinion Exhibit B

There is a big controversy going on, regarding a certain Exhibition or is it a performance or are these terms synonymous, given the formal space the Barbican the work is situated in ? It is taking place in London and you have to pay £20 to go and see it. Given the content of the piece depicting black people as a 'Human Zoo'.  Re-iterating, pernicious, excoriating, colonial racist, sexist, misogynistic imagery, what for  'mock' hip voyeuristic consumption, of  an anticipated white/black liberal audience ?  In some cases, to go see this work, for black people in this day and age given our histories/herstories, it maybe a form of  willful self harm, impacting on hard won confident, liberated afrocentric  identities  i.e. as a retrenchment of negative, so called racial identities/stereotypes. If they were all to write an impact statement about this particular work ... how would they read ? 

This  work  might provoke  as an initial response, mocking laughter in regions, such mine for example, when I have discussed it with my fellow colleagues  they have suggested "  why  would anyone pay to go and see such old style stereotypical racist crap" without putting a finer point on it !.   There has been some conflicting, fascinating, and passionate  opinions expressed by leading figures with national profiles, some are of specific interest to me from the black arts cultural and political communities.  It has actually been somewhat bewildering, but frankly reassuring to me, to see in particular, the way some of these positions, have been so fiercely articulated. Why so? Because it is important,  from my perspective, as an artist, who has produced arts performance, theatre and film heritage, exhibitions, etc. written articles on art criticism AN Newsletter, plus working with all manner of different artists. For me  to come to some clarity, as to my own view on this contentious matter.

 Overall, I have reviewed the material contained within the work in question online.  Without the need or desire  to view it in person (this in fact is how curators often book work in the first place).  I have concluded, that  the work Exhibit B from my point of view, presents as poorly conceived art, with no real artistic merit.  As it is wholly predictable, and paradoxically reduces in a significantly negative way, rather than adds meaningfully, to our desire for art, to help us gain a deeper meaningful understanding and real engagement, with the complex and troubling issues it purports to address. It does not take us forward in any way, in terms of the post traumatic syndromes  and legacies of Imperialism /Empire, Colonialism and the racist sexist ideologies that underpin them, nor does it  furnish us with any new perspectives, tools and or strategies to move us forward.  Maybe it is not able to or more pointedly does not want to apply this type of artistic oeuvre and rigour to the work, but I would ask the question, so why take up the time and space … just because you can as a white artist ? 

Many  people it would seem, like me, are not just shocked in this day and age, but wholly fatigued and angry, with the avalanche, of a disempowering repetition, of the imagery of the legacies of blood, pain and exploitation, black people have and still endure. Conversely, we are utterly dismayed at the veritable absence and lack of cogent, intelligent  fresh, new innovative engaging skilled  art work/s, that are able to create truly ground breaking work, from new black artists or white artists. Work that breaks with the old concepts,conventions and orthodoxies and elitist liberal  tastes, as exemplified by the work in question.  Work that speaks volumes powerfully of agency, that does not just tell the 'one story' (Chimanda)  and is truly well informed as to its subject matter and its likely eventual impact.   So what is the new in this work that is due to launch ?  What therefore justifies this work in this space and time, or our attention and reflection ? How does it present an artistic vision, thats grounded in what exactly? Whose psychic geographies, are visualized here that merit our consideration and in my view substantial financial investment, in these challenging economic times? 

This work clearly strives to create a frisson of  sensationalism, by way of justifying its existence, whilst it also plagiarizes ideas and work by other artists, who have used the human body/bodies, but more far more eloquently and less exploitatively in their work. This particular work in question, re-creates visceral and troubling spectacles of 'human tableaux', which is certainly nothing new, old hat in fact in performance art.  But in this case, the subjects are black and mute and are neither authors or collaborators, there is no agency on their part, which would make the work, more interesting and really innovative, by grappling with the likely dynamics and tensions, that would arise and exploring these, creatively with an open progressive approach.   The obvious question of whose gaze, in terms of the audience, does not appear to have been a consideration of the lead artist, who is a white man. Or indeed the likely experiential and psycho-emotional impact on the local black actors recruited, to fulfill the 'static' objectified role/s within the piece. Or in fact the way this relates to the location of the piece, within a such a vibrant diverse metropolis as London.  

 When issues have been raised by the black actors themselves, in terms of their prescribed roles within the work, accurately voicing real concerns and valid points, which are primed for meaningful creative discourse. These were swept brusquely aside by said white lead artist.  For me this speaks loudly, as to the actual power relationships, that are being  repeated and played out in the actual production/delivery of the piece,  I find this to be key and compelling evidence for my negative view of this lead artist's fantasies, and indicative as to the way this particular work, invokes a somewhat repellent taxidermy-like ambiance, that fetishizes the black body and repeats  historical and existing power relationships within society. It makes me think of what happened to Sara Baartman and it makes me shudder. Imagine if we could all be observers of the making of this piece, to deconstruct it and see exactly how it  was devised conceptually, think how we would be compelled to intervene and make changes, offer it up as a non starter in the first place ?  Would we have said tear it all up and make something else …something better or let someone else do it in a different way!   So having reviewed the material contained within this work and my overview of  the different opinions and comments. I have concluded this work is very poorly conceived art, therefore I do support a cultural boycott, of what is simply very poor art i.e deadening and un-enlivening in any way,  and I feel this has to be said unequivocally. 

Below are some selected blog  links I think are interesting re:this Art controversy in London. NB. Yvette Gresle recommended

Yvette Gresle


Lemm Sissay


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