(Re)Presenting ‘The Other’?: On Brett Bailey’s Sanctuary

Katia Arfara
New York University, Abu Dhabi

Over the last years, following the intensification of Middle East’s conflicts, we have borne witness to the forced displacement of thousands of people from their homelands and communities. The ongoing violent changes in the geopolitical map of the Middle East and the subsequent refugee ‘crisis’ uncover the deep political implications of territorial interventions while at the same time revealing the xenophobic stance and virulent nationalisms in Europe. The notions such as border and homeland have thus become a major preoccupation in the social, political, and artistic fields.

I will explore the recent work of the South African playwright, designer, and director Brett Bailey as an exemplary artistic reflection on this ongoing humanitarian ‘crisis’ and the return to essentialist identity politics. More specifically, I will attempt to analyse how Bailey radically reshapes the notion of socially engaged art urging for discursive methods of research, production, and participation at the intersection of aesthetics and civic practice. Bailey investigates current conditions of statelessness and precarious livelihoods through the hybrid form of performative installation which subtly redefines spectatorship and challenges the very notion of representation.

Prominent figure in the post-apartheid theatre since 1996, Bailey has always searched for a cathartic theatrical experience ‘accessible to people right across the social spectrum,’1 a collective (dis)possession that could transgress political correctness and ‘restore health and harmony to communities invaded, assaulted, diseased’2 during the colonial times. His transition from the exploration of African sangomas – diviners or traditional healers – and visceral theatrical ceremonies3 to a direct engagement with migration, racism, xenophobia, and the ongoing repression of the subalterns goes back more than ten years, and it is aesthetically diverse. Orfeus’s journey in Hades based on portraits of lost souls trapped in the underworld of African sorrows in the homonymous work on Orphic rituals in 2006 could be considered as the first encounter of Bailey with the form of tableaux vivants.4 However, the direct precursor of his internationally acclaimed and widely toured performative installations such as Exhibit B was Terminal, the site-specific performance at the Grahamstown’s abandoned train terminal in 2009 that revisited the colonialist heritage of the settler town by still portraits.5 Terminal marked Bailey’s transition from the ‘fractured inner spiritual world of black African culture’6 to the critical investigation of the darkest sides of Europe in colonial and postcolonial times.

Exhibit B. Photographer: Sofie Knijff.

Critically exploring the EU’s policy of racial profiling of African immigrants and refugees, Exhibit B focused on the ethnological shows which were a major phenomenon from the mid-nineteenth century up until the Second World War, when Europeans flocked to these ‘spectacles’ of western imperialism, where people from the colonies were exhibited in enclosures. As Bailey reminds us in his director notes, decontextualised and objectified, these ‘Savages’ were positioned just above animals on a continuum that placed the industrialised West at its magnificent climax.7

Having toured to more than twenty cities all around the world, Exhibit B encountered also reactions and demonstrations. Protests were initiated in Paris and London by activists who had not experienced Bailey’s installation but were drawing on photographs distributed in the media, without knowledge of the performance’s dramaturgy. They claimed that people participating were considered as ‘disempowered […] passive agents’ as they were voiceless and standing still as sculptures.8 However, what made Exhibit B powerful in its critique of colonial and postcolonial cruelties was exactly the fact that the performers were voiceless but not sightless. Bailey worked with the return gaze of each performer and the capacity of each spectator to respond and reflect on the historical roots of today’s policies of exclusion and marginalization. The decision to include contextualised texts and historical information only in short descriptions for each tableau vivant opened up the installation to borderless associations and mental landscapes. Confronted with an extended horizon of perception, the audience were engaged profoundly with their environment in the realm between the real human beings and their representation.

Brett Bailey at Piraeus Port. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi.

Sanctuary and the mechanisms of fear

The representation of ‘the Other’ and the critical reflection on the mechanisms of power and fear that dominate the global social contract9 are also the focus of Bailey’s latest work entitled Sanctuary which I will analyze in my contribution. My approach will be based on my double perspective as an academic and co-curator of the piece that premiered in Athens in May 2017.10 Bailey’s work was produced in the frame of the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward (FFF), the interdisciplinary annual festival that I initiated in 2014 and curated till its last iteration in 2019. The 4th FFF was critically exploring the traumatic experience of forced displacement and the loss both of ‘home’ and of a sense of belonging. Commissioning various forms of site-specific intermedial works such as installations, walking performances, etc., the Festival attempted to create a notional ‘shared space’ on the borderline between fiction and reality while simultaneously testing the limits and the potential of art’s social function. How can we question the (re)presentation of the refugees in a city that was experiencing first-hand the trauma of displacement and relocation while a strict austerity regime and the resurgence of neoliberalism have caused a multifaceted social crisis?

Sanctuary considers different notions of home: homes lost, homes threatened, and homes yearned for. It is an immersive journey into the surreal terrain of the European Union in crisis, as intolerance and reactive populism flourish while surveillance and border controls expand.11 Working closely with Bailey, a team of local and international collaborators, and our community partners and human rights organizations in Greece during the long term research and production process brought to Sanctuary a sense of urgency which was further accentuated by the curatorial decision to install the work in a former temporary refugee camp in Piraeus port. The performance occupied a warehouse and more specifically Gate E2, the stop for ships coming and going among the islands floating on the Aegean sea close to Asia Minor. From 2015 to 2016, many Syrians and other refugees fled to Greek shores hoping to escape to Europe, and an unofficial refugee camp was formed.12 The uncanny nature of the haunted warehouse became an integral part of Sanctuary’s dramaturgy reflecting the emblematic use of the abandoned railway station in Grahamstown, the ‘settler city’ that inspired Bailey’s Terminal.

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi

The labyrinthic form of Sanctuary draws from the classical Greek myth of the Minotaur, and it reconfirms Bailey’s long-term engagement with ancient myths that goes back to MedEia (2003). According to the myth of the Minotaur, the Phoenician princess Europa – after whom the European continent is named – was abducted by Zeus from the Lebanese city of Tyre to the Mediterranean island of Crete. Her son by Zeus was King Minos. His wife became besotted with a sacred bull of Poseidon. The spawn of this affair was the rapacious Minotaur: a human-eating man-bull, who had to be imprisoned within a labyrinth. Each year seven Athenian youths and seven maidens were brought by boat as tribute to Crete where, lost in the endless corridors of the labyrinth, they were devoured by the Minotaur.

Through the Minotaur myth, Bailey looks at various states of limbo in which so many refugees and immigrants find themselves within the EU. Spectators enter the warehouse in groups of seven every four minutes. In a waiting room they read inscriptions such as:

· No talking until you leave
· Stick together
· You are going to enter a labyrinth with many rooms
· Each room is controlled by a green light like this one
· After several minutes, the green light will flash
· Do not leave the room until the green light flashes
· As soon as the green light flashes, move directly to the next room

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi

Upon entering this prison-like labyrinth, spectators encounter eight series of vivid scenes, charged with symbolism, that convey both the no man’s land areas where refugees and immigrants are immobilized and the states of fear and insecurity of the European citizens who consider them a threat to their own sanctuary. The tableaux have the following titles: ‘Prologue,’ ‘Seagulls,’ ‘Pigeons,’ ‘Requiem,’ ‘Kristallnacht,’ ‘Crows,’ ‘Europa,’ ‘Floating,’ and ‘Epilogue.’ Bailey created this sequence of tableaux during a two-year research phase that included an extensive fieldwork at several refugee camps around Europe such as The Jungle refugee camp in Calais, and the Grand Synthe camp in Dunkirk, the camp in Lesvos island in Greece, as well as several camps in Athens, Palermo, and Hamburg. The dramaturg Eyad Houssami and Bailey interviewed around sixty candidate performers in Athens, Hamburg and Marseille: activists, refugees, and interpreters. The final cast is culturally and linguistically diverse and features eight performers, ranging in age from twenty to seventy-years-old. It includes refugees, immigrants, activists, interpreters, and engaged citizens from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. During the preparation period, the performers departed from Bailey’s visual ‘environments’ to develop fictional characters that confront the literal or metaphorical rupturing of their own sanctuaries. Bailey wanted to engage them actively in the process of creation questioning his own process of authorship and ownership. At the same time, he was asking them to reflect on questions such as: What happens to your identity when you lose your place of belonging? What are memories of home and place that you carry with you? How does the collective memory inform a sense of belonging?As Bailey notes in Theater der Welt’s program for the presentation of Sanctuary in Hamburg: ‘They have developed characters to inhabit scenes that I designed, to give poetic shape to the states of limbo, fear and uncertainty in which so many find themselves in the EU today. The real magic in this production will never be witnessed by audiences: it is in the open, unbounded, supportive little community we have formed, regardless of the diversities in background, belief, culture and language that some people would regard as barriers.’13

Disturbing heterotopias

In contrast to Exhibit B, the Athens version of Sanctuary is punctuated by spoken words and micro-gestures. The eight tableaux are composed of limited dramatic action, ‘exhibits’ (found objects or fabricated ones), and two-dimensional sets. Their explicit fakeness and distorted perspective make impossible any direct association with reality but also any claim for authenticity. The interweaving of real and fictional components challenges the very notion of documentary theatre while provoking an uncanny feeling. The uncanny that we are experiencing when walking in Sanctuary’s labyrinth is increased by the few spoken texts in various languages. Some of them, such as the text of the ‘neo-Nazi’ in the tableau ‘Kristallnacht’ remain untranslatable while others are translated in English and Greek and transmitted through loudspeakers, such as the text of the last chapter with the title ‘Floating’ that focuses on the EU asylum procedures.

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi

The eight tableaux of the Sanctuary introduce eight heterotopic spaces – often invisible and marginalized places where, according to Michael Foucault, spaces and times that could not normally coexist are intertwined: camps, railways, private rooms, squares, and graveyards. They are real places, existing in real societies as paradigmatic experiences of otherness. Stavros Stavrides argues that heterotopias are spaces with open boundaries where differences meet and ‘may be understood as sites of osmosis and encounter, as areas in which different identities may meet and become mutually aware of each other.’14 Heterotopias usually mark crucial transformations of social identities, which ‘explore the emancipating potentialities of sharing.’15 Sanctuary is a constellation of heterotopic spaces of disturbing proximity. Moreover, its intimate spaces have porous ‘borders’ as they are interrelated within the larger hyper-dramaturgy of the labyrinth. Sanctuary’s micro-events are singular but at the same time in relation to other micro-events that are taking place in this macro-installation. Bailey elaborated even further on the spatial possibilities of the installation and appropriated the form of the prison-like labyrinth in order to create specific, controlled itineraries for small groups of spectators: made out of metal fences and few dark tissues, the labyrinth imposes a concrete trajectory and a specific behaviour on the audience, obliging them to follow carefully designed paths. The feeling of uneasiness is accentuated by their restricted movement and the impossibility to choose their path or go back if they decide to do so. Their movement from scene to scene is controlled by green lights. The fences regulate the audience trajectories but at the same time, due to their transparency, they allow contact with other heterotopic spaces of the installation: every scene is at the same time related to and separated from the others.

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi


The very structure of the labyrinth reflects the living conditions of the refugee camps in Greece and all over Europe and consequently the territorial thinking of any colonial ruler. In his spatial reading of colonialism, Franz Fanon argues that colonial occupation entails first and foremost a division of space into compartments.16 It is a Manichaean world that involves the setting of boundaries and internal frontiers epitomized by barracks and police stations; it is regulated by the language of pure force, immediate presence, and frequent direct action, and it is premised on the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. In his seminal text on Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe—echoing Hannah Arendt’s ‘politics of death’17—connects the early-modern occupation as described by Fanon with the late-modern colonial occupation and with the contemporary colonial condition of the stateless people in refugee camps. Rather than a threshold or a transit zone waiting to be crossed, the border is more than ever today in Europe a limit, a margin, a checkpoint, a wall, a fence, a barrier which separates the ‘insiders’ from the ‘outsiders’ bisecting cities and villages, altering landscapes, immobilizing refugees in no man’s land areas.
Mbembe refers to the notions of ‘necropolitics’ and ‘necropower’ recounting the various ways in which in our contemporary world wars ‘are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon the status of living dead’.18 According to Mbembe, it is exactly this split between the living and the dead and the division of a population into groups and subgroups that leads to racism.

The camps, centers, and hotspots created during the last years in Europe, including Greece, threaten the very notion of civil society and resonate with the territorial fragmentation experienced during the colonial era in cases such as the apartheid regime in South Africa. Mbembe gives a striking account of colonization and space:

Colonial occupation itself was a matter of seizing, delimiting, and asserting control over a physical geographical area – of writing on the ground a new set of social and spatial relations. The writing of new spatial relations (territorialization) was, ultimately, tantamount to the production of boundaries and hierarchies, zones and enclaves; the subversion of existing property arrangements; the classification of people according to different categories; resource extraction; and, finally, the manufacturing of a large reservoir of cultural imaginaries. These imaginaries gave meaning to the enactment of differential rights to differing categories of people for different purposes within the same space; in brief, the exercise of sovereignty. Space was therefore the raw material of sovereignty and the violence it carried with it. Sovereignty meant occupation, and occupation meant relegating the colonized into a third zone between subjecthood and objecthood.19

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos/Onassis Stegi

Sanctuary, similarly to Exhibit B but also to earlier Terminal and Orfeus, re-examines stereotypes of ‘racial and cultural otherness’ once fabricated by dehumanized systems such as the Apartheid. In the ongoing refugee crisis which Sanctuary confronts, this dehumanisation process has been produced and disseminated through the generalised discourse of media and the hate rhetoric of far right but also of conservative, mainstream rulers and politicians in Europe. By turning the gaze on today’s ‘flat stereotyped “refugee image”’ that dominates the media, Bailey attempts not only to de-generalise the dominant image of ‘the refugee’ but mainly to draw our attention to the personality and citizenship of his characters: the biography of each performer intertwines with the narrated, fictional scene such as in the tableau of Karam Al Kafri who was born in 1993 in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. After having participated in the Syrian revolution, he had to leave the country at the age 18. He spent two years in Moscow before leaving for France in 2014 and has lived in Marseille for three years. He is studying computer science and is an activist for Palestinian and Syrian causes. Apart from the short biography that we read at the end of our trajectory, Karam’s tableau was subtly composed by pieces from his exile years, his struggles back in his hometown but also his dreams and his love for music.

Sanctuary, Fast Forward Festival 4, Athens, May 2017. Photographer Andreas Simopoulos / Onassis Stegi

As in Exhibit B, Bailey returns in Sanctuary to the complex relationships of the postcolonial world yet this time he focuses on composing portraits of human beings who are currently confronted with an ‘unnatural death’ (Arendt). Bailey shows death-worlds of people trapped in limbo intertwining them with their continuous struggle to become a subject, in other words a human being with equal rights of a global citizenship. Sanctuary’s heterotopic community demonstrates its agency within the expanded here-and-now of the labyrinthic installation that reflects the fractured lives of its protagonists. Rather than a linear development, the dramaturgy implicates affinities and disjunctures, encounters and ruptures by juxtaposing micro-gestures, inscriptions, photographs, voice overs and texts in a complex, multi-layered present. It is a dramaturgical discontinuous thinking that does not culminate but remains rather incomplete and refractional till the end of our itinerary in order to create a space of togetherness. Bailey works within what Walter Benjamin calls the ‘now-time’ (jetztzeit). This ‘now-time,’ as Isabell Lorey explains, is not a ‘transition’ of the past into the future; it is rather a constellation between the now and what has been, in which the construction of history becomes obvious. Now-time is the time in which struggles such as revolutionary views and common political action can take place or emerge.20 In that way, ‘the present,’ continues Lorey, ‘shows itself to be fundamentally political.’21 Bailey operates within this historical now-ness that invites spectators to a shared experience of otherness. By producing temporary reflective spaces, Sanctuary creates heterotopic zones of intimacy where proximity is not a threat but a dynamic space of social potentiality, as it contains the possibility to ‘diffuse a virus of change.’22

Katia Arfara is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi. She holds PhD in Art History from Paris I – Panthéon/Sorbonne University. Dr Arfara has BA in Classical Studies (Athens University) and BA and MA in Theatre Studies (Athens University). Her current research interests include socially engaged art, public works, and post-documentary performance. As the Theatre and Dance Artistic Director and curator of the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens (2009-2019), she initiated and curated numerous interdisciplinary events and international festivals. She has lectured extensively in France and Greece. Dr Arfara is a Fulbright fellow, a DAAD and Clemens Heller scholar. Her essays at the crossroads of theatre, dance, performance, and contemporary art have appeared in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Greek in various journals and critical anthologies. Dr Arfara is the author of the book Théâtralités contemporaines (2011), the editor of the special issue ‘Scènes en transition-Balkans et Grèce’ for Théâtre/Public (2016) and the co-editor of Intermedial Performance and Politics in the Public Sphere (2018).

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  1. Brett Bailey, ‘Stories of our time’, The Plays of Miracle & Wonder. Bewitching visions and primal high-jinx from the South African stage (Cape Town: Double Story Books, 2003), p. 10.
  2. Ibid., p. 7.
  3. For a critical survey of Bailey’s ritual dramas from 1996 till 2009 see Anton Krueger, ‘Celebrating the spirit of tragedy: The theatre of Brett Bailey ‘, Positions. Contemporary Artists in South Africa, ed. Peter Anders and Matthew Krouse (Gottingen: Steidl Verlag, 2010), pp. 227-248.
  4. More on Orfeus, its script and its reception in South Africa and Europe in Third World Bunfight’s website https://thirdworldbunfight.co.za/.
  5. For a detailed description of Terminal see Megal Lewis,‘Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes: Brett Bailey’s Exibit B and the Consequences of Staging the Colonial Gaze,’ Theatre History Studies, vol. 37 (2018), 118-120.
  6. Bailey, The Plays…, op.cit., p. 6.
  7. In Exhibit A Bailey focused on German colonialism and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in the German colony of South West Africa in 1904. In Exhibit B he added tableaux on Belgian, French and British colonialism. These tableaux vivants were interspersed with displays on contemporary asylum seekers. Bernth Lindfors’s book, Africans on Stage. Studies in Ethnological Show Business (2000) became the main source of inspiration for Exhibit B.
  8. On the protests against Exhibit B see Katrin Sieg, ‘Towards a Civic Contract of Performance: Pitfalls of Decolonizing the Exhibitionary Complex at Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B’, Theatre Research International, vol. 40, no. 3 (2015), 250–271.
  9. Okwui Enwezor, ‘The Unhomely. Phantom scenes in global society’, The Unhomely. Phantom scenes in global society, ed. Okwui Enwezor, 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville (2006), p. 14.
  10. On the Fast Forward Festival see also http://www.critical-stages.org/19/inter-national-crossings-interview-with-katia-arfara/.
  11. In the hand-out program, Bailey notes South African xenophobia mainly towards citizens from other African countries that have fled conflict, oppression, poverty and ecological devastation, seeking opportunity and safety. In 2008, forty-one foreigners were killed in a week, and 60 000 people fled to refugee camps.
  12. After the EU-Turkey refugee deal was signed in March 2016, the number of people flowing in has dropped drastically. The roughly 65.000 refugees remaining in Greece in May 2017 after the closing of the Balkan route have been relocated to state camps managed by the government, and thus refugees vanished from the port’s scenery.
  13. Following the Athens premiere, Bailey has removed all the spoken text and dramatic action and wrote new texts for each scene which were printed, handwritten or projected for the spectators to read. Much like in Exhibit B, the performers generally did not move, and again he worked with the return gaze of the performers. At a later phase, spectators entered the labyrinth one-by-one and were free to move at their own pace.
  14. Stavros Stavrides, Common Space. The city as Commons (London: Zed books, 2016), p.74.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, foreword Homi K. Bhabha, preface Jean-Paul Sartre, (New York: Grove Press 2004), p.15.
  17. Arendt was pointing out that racism in this ‘society of whites and blacks’ was based on a horrifying idea that the black men were not human beings: ‘Since, however, despite all ideological explanations the black men stubbornly insisted on retaining their human features, the “white men” could not but reconsider their own humanity and decide that themselves were more than human and obviously chosen by God to be the gods of black men.’ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: A Harvest Book, 1994), p. 195.
  18. Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15 (1), 40.
  19. Ibid., 25-26.
  20. Isabell Lorey, ‘Presentist Democracy: Reconceptualizing the present’, The Documenta 14 Reader, Munich/London/New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017), p.178.
  21. Ibid., p. 179.
  22. Stavrides, op.cit., p. 35.

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