British Council accused of censorship over Bahamas exhibition

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Council removed its logo from the show’s catalogue, saying its material was too political. A report by Ben Quinn for London’s Guardian.

The cultural diplomacy arm of the Foreign Office has become embroiled in controversy in the Bahamas where it has been accused of censorship and causing further damage to relations already strained by the Windrush scandal.

The British Council was served with an unprecedented rebuke by the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB), its partner in a major exhibition this year, which said the council had caused “distress and disappointment” after distancing itself from an accompanying catalogue over unstated concerns about its “political” content.

Artists and collaborators in the project have gone further, voicing allegations of censorship and saying they were left feeling “stunned and angry” while the gallery described it as a lost opportunity to foster goodwill in the wake of the Windrush revelations.

Ironically, the project in the Bahamas was the final phase of a British Council series called Difficult Conversations – reflecting on the UK’s involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean.

The controversy centres on a catalogue for a Bahamian show in which the work of local artists has been displayed this year alongside Scottish artist Graham Fagen’s video installation re-working the Robert Burns song the Slave’s Lament. It was commissioned by the British Council for the 2015 Venice Biennale.

But according to the NAGB, the UK body took a unilateral decision weeks before publication to remove its logo and texts from the document, while providing little or no little explanation for the decision other than to say that the material was “too political”.

Officials in London are understood to have been particularly concerned about a section of an essay by Prof Ian Bethell-Bennett, a Bahamian academic, which deals with local concerns about the growth of Chinese influence in the Caribbean state saying: “As Downtown Nassau falls into China’s lap.”

The British Council has faced accusations of censorship in the past over its anxiety about offending the Chinese government, which has been described as “a chill on artistic freedom”.

Following the British Council’s removal of the texts and its logo, the NAGB moved last month to ensure that the catalogue and all of the essays would be published, saying it would be naive to expect the conversation or writings around the artworks would not be “uncomfortable, confrontational or provocative”.

The gallery’s director, Amanda Coulson, has written to the council’s board saying artists and other collaborators had also accused the UK body of “fiercely editing their thoughts and voices”. “A general feeling of being silenced and exploited is the consensus,” she wrote.

“How this looks from our viewpoint is that a white Scotsman is sanctioned to talk about slavery – and is considered courageous and daring, fêted at the most prestigious international art event – but black people should stay silent because their feelings are too raw, too aggressive, and too ‘political’,” added Coulson, who stressed that she and others were not criticising Fagen.

“That the British Council feels that it is wise to distance itself from these voices at such a time, shows a remarkable lack of compassion, care or – frankly – a strategic PR plan.”

Gemma Hollington, the British Council’s head of exhibitions, said: “Firstly we want to extend our apologies. It’s clear that the artists feel upset by how we’ve approached this and we genuinely regret that.”

“With hindsight, we could have handled this differently. From our perspective, the process was not us unilaterally telling them what to do, but working to make sure the essays were published in full while not affecting our non-political status. We continued to discuss with the NAGB throughout, and are still regularly in contact.”

Fagen told the Guardian he had not been given a clear explanation by the British Council. “The decision they made was for political reasons but my view of it is that they have actually made it political by taking their logo off it,” he said.

Overall though, he believed that there had been a positive response in the Caribbean to the Slave’s Lament, which originated from his desire to open up the legacy of Scotland’s relations with the slave trade and the “deliberate or naive forgetfulness” around it.

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