The installation, Exhibit B – The Human Zoo, by South African artist Brett Bailey, shines a light on Europe’s colonial past in which black people were displayed in zoos, sometimes alongside animals.
One of the models used in Exhibit B is a topless woman with shackles around her neck.
The live exhibition has already been performed at the Edinburgh International Festival to mainly positive reviews, including a five-star review in the Guardian which described Bailey’s work as “both unbearable and essential”.
The show is due to come to London’s Barbican gallery at the end of September. However, an online petition calling for the controversial piece to be withdrawn has gained more than 10,000 signatures.
The petition, by Sar’z Myers, described her “utmost disgust” at what she considered to be an “outrageous act of complicit racism” from the Barbican for displaying the piece.
In a statement on the change.org page, Myers said: “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.
“If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo. One of the actors in his piece said: ‘How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?'”
Myers said that, if the Barbican does not withdraw the exhibition, then protests will be staged outside the gallery on the day the show opens on 23 September.
Toni Racklin, head of theatre at the Barbican defended the centre’s stance: “The Barbican made the decision to programme the work based on its artistic merit and we appreciate that the work tackles controversial and sensitive issues. How successfully the production does this is of course, as with any artwork, subjective, and we can only seek to assure those who have signed the petition that the piece aims to empower and educate rather than exploit.
“While we have made the decision to programme this work we are also currently exploring ways that we can hold a public discussion around the controversial issues raised by Exhibit B during its London run.”