Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Road show of colonial horrors shocks at Edinburgh Festival

A scene from Bailey's Exhibit B

It takes a lot to shock the worldly art lovers that congregate in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the annual arts festivals that take place here.  There are plays without actors, without scripts, and sometimes without an audience (usually not intentional).  There are men playing women, women playing men and a melding of the two genders in artworks by performance artists Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge where they have undergone surgical procedures to become more alike each other (one of the performers is a man). Gender, race, sex and politics, are all fodder for artistic expression and boundaries drawn between what is deemed decent and indecent are vigorously disregarded by artists. Nevertheless there is a sense that everything has already been done. It takes a lot to get noticed here; where a multitude of parallel festivals (of art, literature, the fringe, music) offer entertainment and intellectual stimulation in every single shape and form.

 Of all the South African works showing at this festival as a result of the SA-UK Seasons, a cultural accord engineered to foster closer relations between the countries, that expected to create controversy it was the bare breasted maidens in the Zulu troupe that were part of the Military Tattoo.  In anticipation of an outcry, the organisers prepared a press statement after checking that each of the "maidens" were comfortable with nudity. 

Nevertheless, it was the SA artistic company with the tongue-in-cheek name Third World Bunfight, that was hailed by the local press as presenting the most controversial work. Created by its artistic director, Brett Bailey, Exhibit B, which has been installed in a university library, is a macabre production that catalogues some of the worst crimes committed by the west upon Africans from colonial times up until the present day.

Each atrocity is presented like a museum display, with signs detailing when and where each took place. At the centre of each tableau is a live, yet inert performer, playing the victim. The power of these installations are their penetrative stares, which force the viewer to avert their gaze, confront their shame, which is rooted in their desire to study them despite their sense of revulsion. This production overtly echoes and plays off the live-human exhibitions in the 1900s when Africans, such as Saartjie Baartman (who is represented here too) were viewed as curiosities for the pleasure of the European gaze. Those “exhibitions” were pure theatre too, amplifying the otherness or supposed savagery of the subjects.

Bailey has upturned this tradition by presenting Europeans with their own “otherness” – their historical capability for extreme violence and acts of gross human abuses. You could argue their bodies remain the canvas on which this is enacted, which has its problems but it is a bind; how do you confront people with past horrors without the horror, the body, the victim?  The acts presented in this chilling travelling show of horrors include a semi-naked slave chained to a bed, a woman we are told has been cleaning out the skulls of her fellow Africans so that they can be shipped to Europe, a man who has been silenced by a metal contraption that fits over his mouth, and decapitated heads that sing an elegiac song that echoes throughout this cavernous room. All of the incidents are historically accurate, but it is not the cold hard facts that disturb, but the reenactment with live models playing the victims that gives it the edge. Some spectators have left the show in tears. In expectation of this Bailey has set up a room where spectators can write about their impressions, emotions and peruse those of the performers, some of whom are locals. Their relationship to the performance is varied; some see it as activism, a way of drawing attention to racism, others connecting with their heritage or transcending it. That Bailey has created this space, suggests that something further needed to be enacted outside of his exhibition in order for it to be 'completed' - and in terms of understanding the position of the performers, creating a space for them to separate themselves from their role as victims. Does this point to an inherent weakness? Why work so hard at convincing us of their status as victims only to undo this at the end and undercut the power of the theatrical display?  

Bailey may be working with historical facts about gross human violations that have never been aired nor been formally accounted for, which this show directs our attention, however, in a country such as the UK, which prides itself in its political correctness while admonishing those that do not appear to live up to its moral code, he ultimately is presenting a space for visitors to exorcise shame and to reaffirm their separation from the bigoted attitudes of the past, though the show includes incidents in the present where African immigrants have died while being repatriated to their countries of origin.

Different iterations of this production have played in South Africa, notably at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012, where it raised questions about presenting Africans as victims and was met with less surprise than it has here. Aware that productions can only really be sustained in the long run with European tours Bailey undoubtedly tailor-made the show for those audiences -  it has toured in France.

On this occasion it is part of the SA-UK Seasons, which has seen a number of other South African artists present their work at Edinburgh this year. William Kentridge’s Ubu and Truth Commission, and a new  collaborative dance musical called Inala that features the Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Royal Ballet company is also on the International programme. The work of Mary Sibande and Kay Hassan are part of a large art exhibition called Where do I End and You Begin. Race and Silent Voice, local productions which star some of our best thespians (such as Presley Chweneyagae) are showing on the Fringe. Yet it is Exhbit B that has been the talk of the town, proving that theatre is best appreciated when it holds up a mirror to a society or pushes the boundaries of decency. – an edited version of this article was first published in The Weekend Argus, The Sunday Independent, August 17, 2014. 

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