Blog Archive

Monday, 29 September 2014


 Written by Zita Holbourne for The Morning Star  - the truth about the Boycott the Human Zoo campaign. . First published in The Morning Star here
When Prejudice, Power & Privilege Join Forces, Resistance is Necessary 
Monday 29th

posted by Morning Star in Features

The protest that led to the cancellation of the Barbican’s Human Zoo exhibition was not anti-art – it was anti-racist, writes ZITA HOLBOURNE

FOR the past month I have campaigned with a broad range of black community organisations, anti-racist organisations and trade unions, forming the Boycott the Human Zoo Campaign.

Exhibit B is an internationally acclaimed “art” exhibition, by white South African playwright Brett Bailey.  

It replicates human zoos of the Victorian age, using black actors to re-enact scenes of abuse and torture that African people were subjected to during enslavement and colonial rule.  

Actors in the exhibition, who must remain silent, are blacked up, placed in cages and iron masks and shackled.
There is no narrative on the resistance by African people and no acknowledgment of our history before or after these events. 

In some other countries there have been protests, petitions and written complaints, but the Barbican and Bailey had not anticipated the level of resistance from black communities bringing it to London would attract.  

During the campaign, it became very apparent that the Barbican has no expertise in race equality and no diversity in its own organisation, with one single black member on its board. 

When we initially wrote to the Barbican with our concerns in August they replied, stating that Exhibit B was empowering and educational, trying to tell those of us that have a lived experience of the legacy of historical and current racism that we need to be educated on racism by them — a nearly all-white institution.  

How the Barbican could believe an exhibition which objectifies black people in a degrading and offensive way, repeating horrific acts of racist abuse could be empowering to us is beyond me. 

A criticism levied against us by the Barbican and others is that we had not seen the exhibition so how could we be against it? 

But you don’t wait until you have been racially abused to point out that racism exists. 

When we asked the Barbican board and management if they had seen it, only one single member had. So if they were arguing we couldn’t conclude it was racist because we hadn’t seen it, how could the Barbican management say it was not racist when they had not seen it either? 

For us seeing the images and videos of the exhibition were horrific enough. 

Over and over, in meetings, at protests and lobbies and in writing we explained to the Barbican why we found Exhibit B to be racist and we were told that it was not racist because the Barbican did not believe it was — completely disregarding the impact on us.
Some 23,000 people signed an online petition started by Birmingham activist Sara Myers.  

The organisations making up the campaign, including my own union, PCS and Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac) UK represent over one million members. 

PCS culture sector group president Clara Paillard, representing workers in museums and galleries, said: “We supported the boycott because we believe that art should not be used to disguise or promote racism.”

The campaign was also supported by Unite which represents members in the City of London Corporation branch which covers the Barbican. 
Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, wrote to the director of the Barbican raising its concerns. 

“To challenge racism requires a sustained commitment, not a one-off production, and there needs to be the active involvement and engagement of those who continue to experience racism.
“To stage a production that is clearly offensive to many — who view it as a re-enactment of racism, demeaning and patronising — indicates a Barbican that is not sensitive to the views of black people, black organisations and those actively campaigning against racism.” 

Despite ongoing attempts at dialogue with the Barbican, where we pointed out that black communities should have been consulted, it was not prepared to consider our concerns let alone the hurt, pain and anger we felt. 

Director of arts Louise Jeffreys outraged audience members over a last-minute “damage limitation” event, when she stated they did not consult black communities because they did not know who black communities were. 

The meeting we had with the Barbican board came about because I wrote an open letter to the City of London Corporation chief executive and elected council after it failed to respond to my second letter.  

Yet Barbican director Sir Nicholas Kenyon told the Sunday Times yesterday: “He was taken by surprise” and “when we heard a couple of weeks ago that a petition was being organised against the show, we invited them in. 
 “They came to see us, including one of our board members, Trevor Phillips, who is of course black.
“We heard their concerns, but pointed out they had misunderstood the work. They went away promising there would simply be a peaceful protest. But on the evening of the planned first night, it turned nasty. Frankly, I feel we were used.”  

Following that meeting we organised a march and rally outside the Barbican and a further petition hand-in demo because the Barbican failed to provide a senior member of staff as promised to receive our petition the first time round.
On the opening night Kenyon stopped to greet me on his way into the exhibition. Hardly a nasty atmosphere. 

The Vaults venue sought to shift responsibility responding to my letter by saying: “The Vaults is a neutral space, we are just hiring the space to the Barbican.”   

As I pointed out to them, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
On the opening night of the exhibition, 200 protesters gathered at the Vaults, which is in a narrow underground tunnel.  

The protest was noisy but peaceful. Protesters closed the entrance doors and drummers lined up in front of the entrance. The organisers called the police, suggesting there had been a fight — which there had not.  

We subsequently learned that riot police had been deployed to the Barbican, mistakenly believing the exhibition was taking place there and that they arrived way before the time of our planned protest so not in response to any concerns, which is disgraceful. 

Subsequently the venue announced that it was closing for the night and protesters started to leave.   
It then issued a formal statement that the entire London show was cancelled. 
 We departed, pleased with this news, if frustrated that it had taken until the opening night for it to happen. 

What followed was a vicious attack on black activists and communities opposing the exhibition. 

The Barbican put out a statement accusing us of stopping freedom of expression.   
It also said: “Last night as Exhibit B was opening at the Vaults 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.
“Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece.” 

This statement was irresponsible and cowardly. Police have confirmed publicly that there were no arrests, no damage to property and no injuries. Yet the Barbican intentionally used the terms “extreme” and “threat.” 

The venue was in an underground tunnel. It would have been easy for police to cordon off the area for subsequent nights, only allowing those with tickets to enter.
The truth is that the Barbican had underestimated the strength of feeling and resistance. 

There was nothing extreme about the protest, yet supporters of Bailey, “defenders” of art and sections of the media reported that we brandished placards and drums and acted threateningly by singing and blowing brightly coloured whistles. 

Comments were even made about our hair — “many of them had dreadlocks.” We were branded racists, fascists and extremists.  

But to be racist we would have to have power. Racism occurs when prejudice, privilege and power join forces.
Tellingly, journalists who were there reported that our protest was welcoming and peaceful, but those who had not been there described us as an angry threatening mob, relying on the Barbican’s statement. Some even incorrectly reported that our protest took place outside the Barbican. 

We have been accused of censoring art and stopping freedom of expression. We were told that we have done a terrible thing to art. 

But our boycott campaign in fact involved a wide range of artists — visual artists, musicians, rappers and poets.
As a visual and performance artist myself, I am passionate about art — but if my work greatly offended hundreds of thousands of people I would act responsibly and acknowledge this.  

I am an artist but I am also a human rights and anti-racism campaigner and I don’t see the rights of people as being lesser than objects of art.  
People are outraged that art has been treated this way, but the same people were not outraged by the pain, offence, hurt and anger we experienced because of the Human Zoo exhibition.
They are not offended by the institutional racism that black communities experience today.  

The reason we came together in a short space of time to oppose the Human Zoo is because we have had enough of racism, criminalisation of our communities, the disproportionate impact of cuts on our families, the scapegoating, scaremongering and demonisation.  

As racism deepens, the last thing we need to see is acts of historical racism promoted and celebrated as art while those involved profit from the £20 entrance fee. 

The Barbican has told us repeatedly that Exhibit B is important work. When we asked who it is important for they couldn’t answer. 

The truth is that Exhibit B was never for us. The entrance fee alone would prohibit most austerity-stricken black (and white) working-class families from attending. 

If it was really supposed to be educational it would have been free and open to many more people.
If Bailey really wanted white people to know what racism feels like he would have put white people in the cage, mask and shackles.  

There are many other ways to educate on the horrors of historic racism, but any such project must also seek to address the racism we face today. They should be inclusive not exclusive.

Dr Richard Benjamin, who heads up the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, wrote to me saying: “Congratulations to you and your colleagues for making your voices heard. For me there is nothing more important than the culture sector being subject to such scrutiny. The International Slavery Museum has a very clear ethos, we are a campaigning museum and as such use the museum and its content to challenge views/actions/ideologies that persist today.”

The response to Exhibit B by black communities in London must send a message to British arts and culture institutions that they must practice equality — they must consult the diverse communities they serve and nurture the artistic talents that exist in those communities.  

The institutional racism that exists in the sector must be addressed. My decision to try and tour an exhibition showcasing the talents of young black artists despite having no budget, funding or sponsorship is exactly because young black artists do not get the opportunities that white privileged artists like Bailey get. 

Barac UK and others see a need for a new black arts movement to nurture talent in our communities because we know we can’t rely on the institutions.
Zita Holbourne is an award-winning trade union and community activist, poet, visual artist and curator. She is co-founder of Barac UK and has been elected to the PCS NEC, TUC race relations committee and ACTSA NEC.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014



After a month of campaigning against the degrading offensive racist human zoo  exhibition - known as Exhibit B, hosted by the Barbican, the 'boycott the human zoo' campaign has succeeded in closing it down on the opening night of the exhibition.  

This is a victory not just for the team of campaigners  which BARAC UK was proud to be a part of and who worked tirelessly, several behind the scenes, but the 22,500 people who signed Sara Myers' (who led the campaign) petition calling on the Barbican to withdraw the exhibition. Plus all the organisations that formed the campaign, representing over 1 million members as well as every individual who took part in the campaign.

We sent a clear message to The Barbican and to all institutions that are racist that black communities in the UK will not stand back and be disrespected. 

We have succeeded in stopping the human zoo in London but it is due to go to other countries, so a global response is needed.  Here in the UK a public inquiry and serious measures to address the deep rooted institutional racism that exists in the arts and culture industry  which is amplified by austerity and cuts to arts funding is needed. 

Drummers line the entrance to The Vaults

A fuller update will follow including details of a victory party. Please note and pass on that, as a result of the the entire London show being cancelled the planned protests outside the vaults for the rest of the week are also cancelled.
Celebrating our Victory with some of the organisers of the campaign
Zita Holbourne, co-chair of BARAC UK with letter from the Vaults confirming the cancellation of the entire show

Protestors outside The Vaults Entrance (boycott the human zoo art)


Sara Myers who started the campaign and petition with Co-Chair of BARAC UK, Lee Jasper & letter confirming cancellation of the show

Protestors block the entrance

Donna Guthrie, BARAC Women's Officer who handled the campaigns social networking

Thank you for your participation in this campaign. People Power! Collective Action! Unity!

Saturday, 20 September 2014


Co-Chair of BARAC, Lee Jasper with Nelson Mandela

Zita Holbourne, Co-Chair BARAC UK with Abdul Minty, Honorary Secretary of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) 1962 to 1995

 ACTSA is the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement,  originally known as The Boycott Movement. I grew up in a family who supported the boycott campaign. As a student, participating in the Anti-Apartheid Movement was my grounding for becoming an anti-racist activist. So I am proud to have been elected to the ACTSA National Executive Council for a number of years now. This year we celebrate our 20th year as an organisation. Nelson Mandela welcomed ACTSA's formation by  saying "And so we warmly welcome the transformation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement to Action for Southern Africa."

BARAC officers celebrate  with South Africans in London 

When Nelson Mandela passed away last year I  had the great honour of performing a tribute poem, at his official UK memorial service at St Martin's in the Field and I wrote this tribute for The ACTSA website and The Voice Newspaper, entitled Honouring Nelson Mandela's Memory by Continuing His Legacy.

Zita Holbourne, Co-Chair of BARAC, at a tribute to Nelson Mandela, Trafalgar Square, London

So I think that it is fitting that in continuing Madiba's legacy, ACTSA has spoken out about the pain and damage that the Human Zoo known as Exhibt B, by Brett Bailey and hosted by The Barbican and The Vaults is causing to black communities in the UK. 

Here is a letter written by Director of ACTSA, Tony Dykes to Nicholas Kenyon Director of the Barbican.

Sir Nicholas Kenyon
Managing Director,
The Barbican
Silk St


16 September 2014

Dear Sir Nicholas Kenyon

Re: Exhibit B- Barbican staging of 23- 27 September 2014

Action for Southern Africa, ACTSA, the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement adds its concerns to those being expressed by many individuals and organisations at the Barbican’s staging of the production Exhibit B. We urge the Barbican to listen and act on these concerns.

Many people - black and white, organisations of black people, and organisations active against racism in the UK, including trade unions, object to its staging - believing that whatever the intention of the production, it objectifies black people, it is voyeuristic, exploitative and demeaning.

2014 is the 20th anniversary of South Africa becoming a free and democratic country. The country is dealing with the legacy of apartheid and colonialism, including the doctrine of white supremacy. South Africa is trying to deal with this horrific past and its impact by challenging racism as it builds a democratic, non-racist and non-sexist state through significant processes of reflection, learning, engaging in dialogue and discussion including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Apartheid Museum and Robben Island. This is in contrast to a one-off show that depicts black people as objects, yet does not seem to have involved black people in the development of the concept and production and which many view as voyeuristic.

The Barbican itself does not seem to have thought that if it is to stage this production it should proactively engage with the black community in the UK, getting their views rather than simply stage a production and when there is criticism of this dismiss it as an attempt at censorship.

One of the key lessons from South Africa is that it is what you do but also how you do it and what is your motive for doing it that is important.

To challenge racism requires a sustained commitment, not a one-off production, and there needs to be the active involvement and engagement of those who continue to experience racism. To stage a production that is clearly offensive to many - who view it as a re-enactment of racism, demeaning and patronising and without apparently considering this could be the view - indicates a Barbican that is not sensitive to the views of black people, black organisations and those actively campaigning against racism.

ACTSA urges the Barbican to really listen and engage with those who object to its staging of Exhibit B.

Yours sincerely

Tony Dykes Director

London celebration of South Africa Women's Day 

Nelson Mandela said; 'For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others'

It's  about time that Brett Bailey and the decision makers at The Barbican, The Vaults and other organisations responsible for Exhibit B taking place in London, use their freedom and privilege to respect the right to freedom, dignity and equality of those who live with the legacy of historic racism and institutional racism every day. 

Join BARAC and the organisations that form the Boycott the Human Zoo Campaign in our mass picket of The Vaults from Tuesday to Saturday next week.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014


17 September 2014
Boycott the Human Zoo; 1 Million Rising

From Tuesday 23rd of September to Saturday 27th of September a picket will take place each day, between the hours of 5.30pm to 10pm at The Vaults, to coincide with showings of Exhibit B, Third World Bun Fight, by Brett Bailey, which is hosted by The Barbican.  Protestors will assemble at the main entrance to Waterloo Rail Station, SE1 8SW.

BARAC UK is one of several organisations forming the campaign boycotting the exhibition and BARAC representatives and members will be participating in the protests at The Vaults.

Zita Holbourne, National Co-Chair BARAC UK said;
“You don’t tackle the legacy of racism or current racism by re-enacting racist atrocities. Contrary to the claim by The Barbican that Exhibit B is empowering and educational, it is impossible for the descendants of racism created through colonial rule, Empire and enslavement to be empowered by seeing black people caged, chained, blacked up, tortured and murdered.  As a visual artist and curator, I create and exhibit art that both challenges racism and promotes equality. This exhibition does neither. Those of us who have a lived experience of racism do not need educating on racism. It is an absolute disgrace in our Capital city that this exhibition was agreed without consulting black communities on how it would be received and with complete disregard for the pain and anger it is causing. It is indicative of the deepening institutional racism we experience.”

Lee Jasper, National Co-Chair BARAC UK said;
“Here in London, a city that is 40% non- white, we have a strong and powerful tradition of black self- organisation and anti- racism. Brett Bailey or the Barbican could have at any time, spoken to a wide range of organisations, prior to putting on the show, in an effort to seek their views; they choose not to do so and to add insult to injury. We believe this Human Zoo to be racist in conceptualisation and presentation. It is an exercise in white privilege and power which should have been challenged when it was suggested it be hosted in London, rather than being supported by The Barbican and The City of London Corporation.  Failure to withdraw will lead not only to a boycott of Exhibit B but of The Barbican as an organisation”

From 23 to 27 September, The Barbican will host Exhibit B, by Brett Bailey, at The Vaults in Waterloo.

Exhibit B is a re-enactment of the Victoria human zoo, using black people to act as exhibits subjected to racist torture and murder.  The exhibits include black ‘actors’; a woman in shackles, waiting to be raped, a man in an iron mask, people in cages, ‘blacked up’ and in plane seats being murdered. The exhibition objectifies black people in an offensive and degrading way. The Exhibition is racist and hurtful and has been met with outrage by black communities and the wider public.  A coalition of organisations including  BARAC UK, representing over 1 million members in addition to the 21,000 plus people who have signed the online petition are calling for the exhibition to be withdrawn by The Barbican who are hosting it.

An open letter to the City of London Corporation, by BARAC UK, led to a meeting with members of The Barbican Board and management on 11th September, who refused to withdraw from hosting.  A lobby of the City of London Council took place on the same day and a March and rally outside The Barbican with speakers and performers took place on 13 September. At the meeting on the 11th the Campaign requested a senior member to receive the petition on the 13th which was acknowledged.  Despite at least one Board member being present at the Barbican on the day of the rally, only security staff  were made available to accept the petition.  As a result of this another protest took place on 16th September and the petition was handed in to a Board member.  

Contact:  Zita Holbourne,  National Co-Chair BARAC UK,                    Campaign Press Officer.                                                                                 
Tel. 07711 861660

@baracuk  @boycotthumanzoo

Monday, 15 September 2014


Protestors outside Guildhall

    Last week two significant protests took place in London, in opposition to the racist, offensive and horrific Human Zoo exhibition to be hosted by The Barbican. Probably for the first time ever, the City of London Corporation, owners of The Barbican, was lobbied by black community campaigners. Organisations and individuals, including BARAC UK demonstrated outside Guildhall as members of the Corporation entered to attend their regular Council meeting.  

Image by Zita Holbourne

As a result of the open letter that BARAC UK sent to the Chief Executive of the Corporation, a meeting was facilitated between campaigners and members of The Barbican Board and Management. At this meeting we informed The Barbican that we would be handing in the petition of over 20,000 signatures that Saturday and requested that a senior officer received it. This was acknowledged. 

Lobbying the City of London Corporation (with representatives of Unite the Union, BARAC UK & BEMA)

On Saturday 12th of September protesters marched to The Barbican for a rally outside before the planned petition hand in.  The organisations represented not only on the day but who have signed up to the campaign represent over a million in addition to the 20,000 plus who have signed the petition. Speeches and performers were accompanied by drummers. Children and adults carried banners with the words ' I am somebody' and 'I am not an object on them'. 

March to The Barbican

 Tafadwa ShakaRa Mbandaka  performed the opening libations, the proceedings were compered by Paul Lawrence. There were poetry performances by Akala, Zita Holbourne (Co-Chair BARAC UK) & Anthony Anaxagorou and speeches by  Sara Myers (Petition author),  Zita Holbourne, PCS & TUC Race Relations Committee, Donna Guthrie (Unite), Lee Jasper, Co-Chair BARAC UK, Kehinde Andrews, OBU, Austin Harney, CRAIC, Paul Richards, UpRise and Hilary Mohammed, Nation of Islam. People were drawn out of the Barbican and surrounding businesses by the presence and sound of the protest.

A video of the rally can be viewed here.

Lee Jasper, co-chair of BARAC speaks

 Disgracefully when it came to the point of handing in the petition, The Barbican failed to provide a senior representative to receive it, despite the discussions with them on Thursday about this and despite the fact that a senior Board member had been visible during the protest, viewing proceedings from a balcony.  Instead they sent as their representative, the Head of Security who acted with hostility. As a result, it was agreed that the petition would not be handed in that day and a subsequent event would be organised for the hand in.

Zita Holbourne, Co-Chair of BARAC performs poetry
Donna Guthrie, Unite member & BARAC Women's Officer

Brett Bailey's Human Zoo is neither art nor empowering. Yet this is what The Barbican have tried to tell us, that if we were to attend it, we would be empowered and educated.  Quite clearly those of us that have a lived experience of racism do not need educating about racism and we are certainly not going to feel empowered by a re-enactment of historic or current racism. Last week I wrote for The Voice Newspaper on this; Read here. 

image by Zita Holbourne

In fact, when we met with the  predominantly  white (just one black member) Barbican Board and Management and asked them how many of them had seen the exhibition, only one had, so it's laughable that they should try to 'educate' anti racist and black community organisations about racism through this horrendous exhibition.

The campaign continues and we will continue to call for the only positive solution to this horrific display of racism, masquerading as a creative artistic expression, a boycott on not just Exhibit B, which will be shown at The Vaults but on The Barbican itself.  Critics of our opposition have claimed that we are calling for censorship of art.  A boycott is not censorship.  The successful Boycott Campaign against apartheid in South Africa included artists, musicians and sports people amongst others.


Sign the petition here