The sound and colour of an authentic African voice

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Art Process, Colonialism, Learning, Nuanced Thinking, Racism, Slavery

Slavery and Slavers, Black and White and Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B

A young black woman naked from the waist up sits on a bed and looks at herself in the mirror. She has an iron collar and chain around her neck and a number fastened to her clothes.

Racism or critique? … One of the installations in Exhibit B at the Barbican.

A similar debacle to the recent Whitney event mentioned in my previous post, took place in London in September 2014 when a South African artist, Brett Bailey, showed  Exhibit B. Did Bailey want to make the descendants of white colonists and  slavers think about their historic involvement in this history of slavery and abuse? Was it a forum for debate about current practise of slavery? Was it about race? Was it only white people who were slavers and black people who were slaves? Protestors said that it degraded black people so it was closed down.  Bailey answers his critics in this Guardian article.


Inside my skin: ‘white’ Madam and ‘Black’ art.

I posted about Exhibit B in my blog  Surviving Monsters where I quoted Tim Minchin, an intelligent comedian  who says:

“A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined. We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.
Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”

Nuanced Thinking

Nuanced thinking is needed when we consider the banning of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. Like many of those writing about it I haven’t seen it. I have read  the arguments however and they are important to me and my art. Dividing the world into black and white is plain silly because the world is not divided into simplistic opposites and never has been. Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B raises questions for artists and humans with both thin skins and thick hides of whatever shade they are on the outside. Art is supposed to shake up ideas and not fix them into one position.

The Single Story – one point of view – fixed or authentic

I am also impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the dangers of a single story. She explains it here:

And so, I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not “authentically African.” Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.”

Its a complicated world and conflict is not resolved by bans, censoring, or boycotts

Pastel and mixed media drawing showing a huge yellow sleeping lion with the figure of a hunter with a gun collaged with a photo of Ruth Hartley as a child

Pastel and mixed media drawing by Ruth Hartley

A woman in a red coat studies a row of drawings on a pale brick wall as she walks past. Her image is blurred as it is a time lapse photograph by Douglas Atfield

Hamera and Hartley’s Finding Fathers installation at New Hall Cambridge










Nobody needs to have a black skin to know that racism, slavery and apartheid are wrong. Nobody needs to be a Jew, a communist, a gay, or have a learning disability or mental illness to know that Nazi slave camps were evil. Nobody needs to be raped or suffer abuse and violence to know its shouldn’t happen. We don’t need to have terrible experiences before we feel empathy and compassion and act to prevent wrongdoing.  In my last post I mentioned the Black Vagina Ashtray made by art student Kaolin Thompson. Outraged by the culture of rape in South Africa that mostly affects black women she wanted to expose it. Her work, however, was said to disempower black women. There was also an outcry that it was pornographic and should be censored. Thompson was a young student in a process of learning. I expect she would have made a more nuanced work given time and positive criticism. I also think it relevant here to quote Jean-Michel Basquiat who declared that he wasn’t a black artist – he was an artist.

I hope that I will adapt and change and that my opinions and assumptions will alter with time, experience and knowledge – allow me this process and allow it for all creative people. Making art and writing are those processes by which we both learn and attempt to change the world for the better. In my drawing series from Hamera and Hartley’s Finding Fathers installation at New Hall Cambridge I engaged with what I learnt, understood and was taught as a child about Africa, my father, myself, and colonisation. It was not, and could not be, a single story but it is my authentic voice in which I examine how I, myself, have changed and continue to change.

A naked black man resting on the ground looks over his shoulder at a small hut sitting in the middle of his back. In the doorway of the hut is a photo of the artist as a child.

Detail from the Finding Fathers installation at New Hall Cambridge.