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Controversial 'human zoo' play brings racism stories to Galway

An actress in the play tells us why she believes it is an important work.

EXHIBIT B image 1- photo by Ada Nieuwendijk Source: Ada Nieuwendijk Fotografie

A CONTROVERSIAL NEW play that aims to raise awareness about racism in Europe has been brought to Galway – months after it was barred from London after protests.

Exhibit B – on show at the Galway International Arts Festival until Monday – is the work of Brett Bailey, a white South African artist. It seems to subvert the 19th centuray European racist ‘human zoos’ which saw African tribespeople taken from their home countries to be exhibited like animals.

“It’s really a history of racism in a sense,” said Bailey in this video below, produced for the festival. “The racism that characterises the relationship between Europe and Africa.”

Source: Galway International Arts Festival/YouTube

The reaction to the play has been strong – a site was set up by Boycott the Human Zoo, and its petition against the London Barbican show was successful. BTHZ believes that the show is racist and should not go on.

ENAR, an Irish-based anti-racism group, has joined their call for it to be boycotted.

The controversy surrounds the fact that the zoo uses black and mixed-race actors, some of whom are semi-naked, displayed on plinths.

Bailey has been accused of “using the black body for his own gain”, and of dehumanising the actors. He has denied the claims.

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The actors stand and sit in tableaux which depict various scenes drawn from the ‘real’ human zoos. After walking through the exhibits, the audience members are asked to write how they feel about the work. They can also read the words of the actors taking part in the show.

The fact that Exhibit B – which got five star reviews when it went on show in Edinburgh in 2014 – has a white creator at the helm has left some people divided: can a white person truly tell the story of racism?

In September 2014, some of the actors in the show told The Guardian why they were happy to take part.

An actor speaks

Speaking to TheJournal.ieManal Elfeitury, who stars in the Galway production, told us that before she agreed to take part, she flew to Edinburgh to take a look. She took her friend, the Adrian Grant, the black producer of the show Thriller Live, with her.

“We both agreed yes definitely, be part of this – this is something very, very important in regards to our history and acknowledgement of what actually had gone on,” said Elfeitury.

“I think it’s quite hard because since all of that kerfuffle [the Barbican petition] happened I’ve met a lot of protesters first-hand and listened to their stories and they pulled a couple of words like ‘human zoo’ and ‘white South African’,” she said, referring to questions about Bailey’s race.

exhibit b 2

For Elfeitury, the show is “about stopping the hideous things that happen within our society”.

While she agrees that people are entitled to their opinions on the show, she said:

I don’t feel that they actually are arguing about the exhibition, I think they’re more arguing the fact it’s a white South African putting it on - and I think that’s an illogical issue.

Mixed marriages

Elfeitury’s mother is English and her father is African. Her tableaux refers to ‘mixed marriages’ between white and black South Africans, which were banned and annulled during apartheid under the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.

“It wasn’t that long ago – it was very, very recent,” said Elfeitury of that time. She believes that there should be more emphasis in history studies of these types of racist occurrences.

Racism and Ireland

While in Galway, the cast of the show did experience a racist incident that involved an older man in a pub.

But Elfeitury said that this has been the only such incident they have experienced in Ireland.

“When people are actually there, they are looking at you,” she said of the show. “The amount of breakdowns I’ve seen from the viewers in Galway…”

EXHIBIT B Image 7 - photo by Sofie Knijff Source: Sofie Knijff

During her first performance, she “sat crying for the first 100 mins”. She praised the Irish audience, saying they “have taken acknowledgement” of the racism depicted within Exhibit B.

“People have to recognise what’s happening here,” she said. “And then once people look at everybody as equal, more humanity comes back. I think that’s when people’s perceptions can change.”

To be told I’m a confused performer, that i’m only being exploited – I find that offensive.
It’s opinions and it’s very emotional and I think it’s nice to be part of something that potentially brings awareness, brings conversation and education.

“I think the Irish have suffered massively through history,” added the actress, referring to the signs seen in London that used to say “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. She believes this may mean that Irish people have a certain sense of empathy with those who have lived under colonial rule.

Exhibit B will run a the Black Box Theatre from 14 – 19 July, with 40-minute-long performance cycles running from 1 – 8pm. Tickets are €20 and can be booked at giaf.ie or through the festival box office on 091 566577, or at the box office at Galway tourist office on Forster St, Galway.

Read: ‘They put me down on the ground because I was with a group of black people’>

Read: 7 offensive sayings some people don’t realise are offensive>

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