A group of Black artists and actors in Switzerland had partially occupied parts of the Gessnerallee theater in Zurich for weeks, with the participants accusing the theater of racism despite it being run by a Black woman and providing the group with a free space for rehearsals for nearly a year.
The group is now making racist claims against White people all while collecting hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs to fund their theater project.
The squatters placed banners on the north wing of the theater, with the artists calling for a non-White theater house that will serve as a “safe space” for only Black, indigenous people and other people of color (BIPOC). It is unclear what the group means by “indigenous,” as the indigenous people of Switzerland are ethnic White Europeans.
The action has been launched by Experi Theater collective, which describes itself as a “non-white performance group.” The group has featured a number of non-White artists and performers over the years.
Critics of the group claim a theater space that excludes White people is racist, according to news outlet Neue Züricher Zeitung. However, the group has responded that such criticisms are actually racist.
“There is no racism against whites,” the group argues. They claim that racism is a White construct that oppresses people who are non-White. “That’s why it’s so important to unlearn White practices and structures in anti-racist work,” they write.
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The group has also been active on social media, writing on Instagram, “We no longer tolerate the brutality of established White institutions such as the Theater Gessnerallee.”
The Experi Theater group is making these claims despite the director of the Gessnerallee theater, Michelle Akanji, being Black herself. Akanji has been praised by progressives for adding more non-Whites to the theater’s staff.
The group, which has received 237,000 Swiss francs from the city government over the last two years, claims that the theater is destroying their space, their artistic works, “their voice,” and their very existence.
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There has been an ongoing conflict between the collective and the Gessnerallee theater management. In the summer of 2021, the group had occupied the attic of the theater and created a “workshop.” The theater responded by offering a compromise to the collective that allowed them to use the room as a rehearsal room until the building was renovated in February 2022.
However, once the renovation was completed, the Gessnerallee management told the collective they could no longer use the space, not only because it was needed for storage but also because, due to building codes, it could only be used as a storage space and was not suitable for rehearsals. Converting it to an actual rehearsal space was also not possible, as the costs for the theater would be too high and it would take years to complete such a renovation.
The group rejected the theater’s argument, claiming the management’s actions confirmed “deep-seated fears of power-sharing” inherent in White institutions. As a result, the collective occupied the north wing of the theater in mid-September.
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The city, along with Nora Refaeil, vice-president of the Federal Commission against Racism, initiated a mediation with the collective, and they appear to have reached an agreement, which led the group to withdraw from the wing occupied.
However, mediation is still ongoing, and although the theater group has ended its occupation, it remains unclear if the group was given access to other rooms or received other concessions, including in the form of more taxpayer money. The group and the theater board have agreed not to discuss details until the mediation is complete. It is also unclear whether the theater or government will entertain the groups’ request for a non-White theater.
FDP local councilor Yasmine Bourgeois has condemned the group, saying. “All in all, I’m quite displeased with the implicitness with which the affected collective claims state benefits for themselves or extorts them at the expense of the general public.” She says if the collective has such concerns about White racism, it can start its own theater at its own expense instead of using up taxpayers’ money.
She said that a”non-White theater” probably only means non-White viewers are allowed to attend.
“The refusal of a service intended for the general public because of a person’s race, ethnicity, or religion is criminally prohibited,” she warned. In addition, such an institution promotes neither inclusion nor integration, but a form of separation that is reminiscent of the times of racial segregation.