LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A slavery exhibition featuring black actors as live models to represent African slaves was canceled by a London art center after protests of racism, sparking a debate on Thursday about freedom of expression.
The show, Exhibit B, by South African director Brett Bailey, at London’s Barbican Centre, aimed to tell the stories of African slaves and asylum seekers under British colonialism using black actors in a series of live scenes.
These 12 installations included a black woman shackled to a bed and a black man in a metal mask which Bailey said were designed to recreate the horrors of slavery and the “human zoo phenomenon” when African tribespeople were displayed in the 19th century for the entertainment of European and American audience.
But over 200 demonstrators took to the streets outside the show staged in underground tunnels by Waterloo station in central London on Tuesday, prompting organizers on Wednesday to cancel the show’s eight scheduled performances this week.
“It became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff,” a spokesman from the Barbican said in a statement.
“We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”
It is the first time that the Barbican has been forced to withdraw a show since its opening 32 years ago.
The “Boycott the Human Zoo” campaign, led by Sara Myers, an activist from Birmingham, voiced concerns about what she called “a complicit act of outrageous racism” with a petition campaign over the past month escalating to a street protest on Tuesday.
The campaigners hailed the cancellation as a victory.
The show had been staged in around 12 cities around Europe before coming to London, receiving largely favorable reviews.
The cancellation of the show sparked a debate on Twitter about what constitutes art and the boundaries of exploring race under the #boycottthehumanzoo hashtag.
Bailey, a award-winning controversial artist and director who focuses on post-colonial “atrocities” in Africa and has previously run a show on conflict or “blood diamonds”, said Exhibit B was challenging but never sought to offend.
“Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?” he wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith