A petition calling on the Barbican to withdraw South African theatre director Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B installation has reached nearly 23,000 signatures, prior to it opening at the venue tomorrow for a sold out five-day run.

The work, described as ‘both unbearable and essential’ by The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner in a five-star review of its recent Edinburgh Fringe staging, features black people in cages and references real 19th century ‘human zoos’.

The petition against the work is organised by Birmingham journalist Sara Myers. It calls on the Barbican’s managing director Sir Nicholas Kenyon to cancel the week-long live installation.

The petition says: ‘We are deeply offended yet not surprised that the colonialism this piece purports to expose does nothing more than reinforce how effective it was and remains as a caging instrument of white supremacists. We charge the Barbican with exhibiting institutional racism for agreeing to stage this poison.’

Exhibit B has been shown across Europe attracting both controversy and acclaim. Quoted in The Guardian, Bailey has said of the work: “What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them.

“But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies. But other than that, they are just a catalyst.”

Protests planned

Writing in The Voice, black activist and artist Zita Holbourne criticised the Barbican’s response to calls to cancel the show. She said that “the art elite and white liberals are disregarding our lived experience of the legacy of colonialism, apartheid, enslavement and oppression – insultingly suggesting that we should visit the exhibition so that we can be ‘educated’ and ’empowered’.”

Campaigners against Exhibit B intend to protest outside the Barbican during its run. Meanwhile, tonight, 22 September, at Theatre Royal Stratford East, there will be a discussion event about the work, organised by Nitro Theatre.

Exhibit B – The Discussion: Lessons & Legacy will include views from both sides of the debate and takes place at 6pm. Confirmed speakers include petition organiser Myers, the poet and artist Lemn Sissay and the Barbican’s director of arts, Louise Jeffreys.