Art should champion the underdog

Director and installation artist Brett Bailey makes award-winning political productions, often exploring post-colonial Africa and championing the talent of emerging artists. Here he explains how apartheid influenced his subject matter – and why provocative, socially engaged work is increasingly vital

I’ve got a thing for the underdog. Most of my work focuses on the people at the bottom of the feeding chain, those who have a raw deal. I’m attracted to those situations where a person, group of people or a system crushes others. I want to expose what’s going on. I find it difficult to make work that is not socially and politically engaged.

But I’m not overly idealistic, I don’t believe that my work is going to change the world. I’m simply one in a great swell of people who want a more just, humane environment, and I do believe that creative energy can influence the way society thinks and acts.

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely
Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Coming from Africa, which has a long legacy of people being stamped on by others, most of my work concerns the colonial and post-colonial landscapes of Africa, and the relationship between my continent and the West. I spent the first 27 years of life living under South Africa’s apartheid regime. Until I went to university at the end of the 80s, the only Black people I’d met were domestic workers, gardeners and school janitors.

I became a theatremaker during the period of transition to democracy. As soon as apartheid’s walls came down, I made it my mission to steep myself in everything that had been withheld from me. I lived in remote African villages, I worked with Black performers in several African countries, I lapped up inspiration from African ceremonies, design, music and performance.

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I design and direct the works I make, and I often write the texts and work on the music too. I feel the piece before I make it; the challenge is to shape it correctly. My strongest talent is choosing the right people to work with: crew, performers and creative collaborators.

'Dr Fischer's Cabinet of Curiosities' - EXHIBIT B - photo by Ada Nieuwendijk
‘Dr Fischer’s Cabinet of Curiosities’, part of Exhibit B © Ada Nieuwendijk

I believe that the best artistic fruit grows when the environment is safe, respectful and happy. I strive to make work that is visually astonishing, deeply affecting, utterly absorbing, multilayered and intelligent, with a strong human core – work that is about life, with all its clashing hues of violence, beauty, fear and compassion.

It is vital for me that art is connected to life, but I am not a fan of art that creaks under the burden of some social agenda – finding the balance is imperative. I believe this comes out of creating from a place that is as engaged and aware as possible, so in-depth research is essential. I prefer to raise questions rather than provide answers.

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My adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth, which is currently touring Europe, is set in the killing fields of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than five million people have died in conflict over the past 20 years. The opera is performed by a fictitious troupe of refugees from the war, who throw the spotlight on the rapacious exploitation of minerals by local warlords and multinational corporations that fuel the ongoing crisis.

'Found Object' - EXHIBIT B
‘Found Object’, part of Exhibit B

My work Exhibit B – a ‘human installation’ – looks at a system of racial profiling, objectification and dehumanisation, which has characterised the relationship between the West and Africans for centuries. It draws a line between the policies of the EU towards African asylum seekers, and the human zoos, scientific racism and concealed brutalities of the colonial era.

My site-specific piece Orfeus locates the Greek classical myth within a contemporary African setting. The Underworld is ruled by a decaying neo-colonial Hades who lords it over sweatshop children sewing clothes for highstreet stores, women trafficked into the sex trade, and men rotting in forgotten jails.

'Travail et Progres' - EXHIBIT B - photo by Sofie Knijff
‘Travail et Progres’, part of Exhibit B © Sofie Knijff

I’m one of the few South African performancemakers who has an international career. It’s a mixed blessing: I’m privileged to be able to present my work all over Europe and beyond, but very rarely do I have the opportunity to show my work back home. It’s simply too expensive, and accessing the very limited funds available for cultural projects in South Africa is a shot-in-the dark process. There is a rich cultural scene at home, but it struggles under lack of resources and suffers in isolation from global cultural streams.

Brett Bailey with a performer from EXHIBIT B - photo by PSofie Knijff
Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Sofie Knijff

As a South African artist I have something of value to communicate to the world, not only in showing work born of a different reality to that of the West, but also because I was raised within a milieu of fear, violence and fascism. I know that kind of system. I know how it smells. At a time in which right wing parties and ideological extremism are gaining traction in so many countries, in which the boots of unfettered capitalism kick profits out of faceless people in silent corners, conscious voices that raise the alarm are needed.

Exhibit B, by Brett Bailey and his company Third World Bunfight, will be staged at Edinburgh International Festival from 9-25 August.