24/09/2014 12:44 BST | Updated 24/09/2014 14:59 BST

Barbican's Anti-Racism Show Featuring Black People In Cages Cancelled... After Racism Claims

A critically-acclaimed performance event featuring black actors in a "human zoo" has been cancelled after protests which posed "a serious threat" to the audience and performers.

The show, called Exhibit B, was created by white South African Brett Bailey and claimed to critique colonial attitudes by recreating a 19th century "human zoo" which displayed African people as scientific curiosities for European white visitors.

It has been cancelled despite being called "an important and provocative work" by the Evening Standard and receiving a five-star review in The Guardian when it was shown in Edinburgh earlier this year.

An image from Exhibit B

The show has already been seen by around 25,000 people in 12 cities. It is made up of twelve scenes which visitors walk through, each featuring motionless black performers, some of whom appear in chains and cages.

Revered Guardian theatre critic Lyn Garnder said it was "unbearable" but "essential" and praised it for reminding viewers that "Britain's 21st-century ways of seeing are still strongly skewed by... colonial attitudes."

But the performance has been forced to close after protesters called it racist for putting black people in demeaning positions.

Police were called to a demonstration outside the show's first performance which was so "extreme" in nature that the remaining four nights have had to be cancelled, according to The Barbican.

More than 22,000 people signed a petition expressing their disapproval of the show and calling it "an outrageous act of complicit racism" and "tantamount to mental terrorism".

Exhibit B

A campaign against the show called 'Boycott Human Zoo' has a website displaying the logos of groups including Unite, Operation Black Vote, The Organisation of Black Unity and the NUC Black Students Campaign.

The online petition, started by Sara Myers from Birmingham, said: "We as Black African people, do not need to be reminded or re-brainwashed into thinking we are less than. To camouflage this assault behind the mask of a ‘respectable’ institution such as the Barbican is tantamount to mental terrorism.

"What Bailey and his ilk (disturbingly many of whom are black) are doing is cynically courting attention to generate attention, thus sales. And they are using black bodies and the bloody history of white supremacism to do so.

"None of these artists would dare confront, say, Muslims or Jews in this way, because they know the potential ramifications for them. But it seems Black African people, continue to remain fair game, just as we have been for centuries."

The Barbican explained that it had "no choice" but to shut down the event, saying in a statement: "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."

A promotional image for Exhibit B

The Barbican said the show planned to "confront colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today." The description on its site said: "As spectators walk past the exhibits one-by-one, to the sound of lamentations sung live by a Namibian choir, a human gaze is unexpectedly returned."

It said in its statement on the show's cancellation: "We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.

"Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive."

"We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.

"We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression."