Race is an explosive word. It fills the silent halls of the establishment and rings from the throats of anti-fascist protestors. But is it always so black and white? For activists boycotting Brett Bailey’s upcoming installation at the Barbican it is.
Reproducing the barbaric human zoos of the late nineteenth – early twentieth century, which saw black humans exhibited in cages often alongside animals, Third World Bunfight / Exhibit B has set off a bomb in the mystical realm floating somewhere between art and politics. Bailey’s graphic series of historical tableaus including the depiction of a woman chained to the bed of a French colonial has been derided as an affront to black ancestry, objectification of the black body and disempowering for the local black community. Black activist Sara Myers’ petition against the show has to date received over 21, 000 signatures.
The Metropolist was offered an opportunity to meet one of Exhibit B’s life models. Expecting to find an ignorant careerist what we discovered was a self-aware, convicted and politicized mixed race actress. As someone who infolds both narratives of white supremacy and black discrimination; who unhinges notions of ‘black or white’, is Manal El Feitury in a position to respond to allegations of racism plaguing the arrival of Exhibit B? Read on and decide for yourself.
Manal El Feitury: I’m an actress and singer from London, of mixed race heritage. My mother is English although she grew up in occupied Pakistan and speaks fluent Urdu and Arabic. My father is Libyan but due to genetic pooling you could consider him white. That’s why for me a lot of the criticism surrounding Exhibit B doesn’t make sense. It’s inaccurate to talk about race in definitive terms; no one is 100% black or white anymore. In South Africa as recently as 1994 I would have been taken from my parents and given to a black family because my facial features wouldn’t have met measurements for Caucasians. But governments and laws can’t stop people falling in love and that’s what the Human Zoo campaign seems to have forgotten, that regardless of race we can come together.
TM: How did you get involved in Exhibit B?
MEF: I’d just finished a production at Lyric Theatre when the casting came through. To be honest in the beginning I didn’t know much about it, except for all the negativity. But that’s actually what attracted me. I’m always curious about controversial topics, and drawn to investigate with an open mind.
TM: Who else auditioned and were they aware of the controversy?
MEF: Every person who auditioned was apprehensive, there was a lady who even started crying she was so overwhelmed by the negativity. The cast is made up of professional performers but I’m the only one who has stepped out to publicly respond to the criticism that I know of. The rest of the cast have been intimidated by the amount of aggression that’s being displayed.
TM: What sort of criticism have you received?
MEF: Most of it has been online. I think social media has generated a lot of hysteria which has contributed to a misunderstanding of the project. Sara Myers tweeted me at one point accusing me of enjoying seeing black people in cages until she realized I was actually one of the actors, and then she quickly deleted it. She thought I was white. A caller on live radio even addressed members of the Exhibit B cast as ‘coconuts’, which I find very insulting [Radio 2 Exhibit B Debate, Sep 2014]. Just because someone can speak well or is involved in the arts their experience as a black person isn’t seen as legitimate. And suddenly we don’t have a right to get involved in issues which concern race and slavery. How dare anyone try to take away my right to have an opinion or express myself?
TM: How do you respond to allegations that Exhibit B disempowers London’s black community?
MEF: I would say that nothing is as disempowering as ignorance. We can’t bubble wrap the past and pretend slavery didn’t happen. In fact, it happened very recently. We have to engage with it, and very often we will do it in a way that doesn’t please everyone. But the point is to generate discussion and educate. We don’t live in a world where racism doesn’t exist anymore so we have to keep talking about it. That’s Exhibit B’s whole point. It expands the lesson of slavery to reveal institutional racism against refugees, people held in custody and yes, black people alive today.
TM: Do you understand where this criticism is coming from?
MEF: Of course I do! I understand the fear. I’ve experienced it in my own life, personally and professionally – from both sides of the community. I’m never black or white enough. Professionally I’ve had to squash my boobs, my hair is too crazy or I’m constantly being type cast as someone with an East London gangster accent. I know that black people are hugely underrepresented in the arts industry.
Recently I was filming in Bulgaria and went to a local restaurant with some family and friends. A man sitting at the next table wouldn’t stop staring at us, literally with his mouth open. Eventually I asked him if I could help. “Why are you in my country?” he asked. I replied “I heard it’s very beautiful and wanted to visit.” Immediately he burst into a huge grin and couldn’t thank me enough.
It’s so easy to give in to fear and face the world with suspicion, but what if it’s filled with good people?
TM: What would you say to your critics?
MEF: First of all I’m not even sure who they are. Last week I invited a friend to Exhibition B, she agreed to come and thought it sounded incredible before realizing she’d signed the petition. She’d put her name to a piece of paper and didn’t even know what it was. That’s the problem with all this hype. It sucks people into something before they’ve even scrutinized the details.
To the more vocal campaigners I have so much to say. I’ve offered to meet protestors to talk about this rather than shout about it over Twitter. I don’t want to engage in more hate. In general I’m the type of person who steps back, I’m very reserved unless I feel convicted of something. In this case I think it’s repulsive that black people are calling other black people including myself coconuts in the name of racial liberation. They need to ask themselves who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.
TM: What sort of praise have you received?
MEF: My sister put it very well; “I don’t ask you to clap every time I write an invoice.” I’m a professional. This is my job and I know what I’m doing, I’ve built a successful career in performance arts over eight years. Ultimately I don’t have to justify myself. I don’t need praise. I just want to address some of the confusion which is surrounding Exhibit B. You don’t have to agree – I’ve invited friends who could very well be disgusted by what they see. I just don’t think you can achieve anything good by creating so much animosity and alienating people from one another on the lines of race.
Third World Bunfight / Exhibit B
23 – 27th September 2014
Barbican, tickets £20 plus booking fee