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Next month in Norway a ‘human zoo’ will open, a re-enactment of the voyeuristic exhibitions of Africans and other non-western people throughout the colonial era. The organizers aim to spark discussion on the legacy of racism and colonialism, but have they overlooked the pain and humiliation the exhibition may bring to Africans worldwide, and the danger of the resurgence of racial stereotyping?
As part of mammoth celebrations of Norway’s two hundred years of independence from Sweden, the Government of Norway is funding two artists to re-enact a human zoo which will open to the public on May 15. Oslo’s original Human Zoo or ‘Kongolandsbyen’ was central to Norway’s World Fair and the celebration of one hundred years of independence in 1914. The artists claim that the project, which they named ‘European Attraction Limited‘, is meant to provoke a discussion on colonialism and racism in a post-modern world, engaging with Norway’s racist past in the process. Some anti-racism organisations and commentators have labelled the project offensive and racist. At This is Africa, we ask; is there any artistic value in the re-enactment of such a dehumanising spectacle, especially in a world not yet fully healed of racism? Is this an abuse of art? Won’t the re-enactment reverse the modest gains of the equality struggles, especially in a world that superficially engages the subject of race?
Norway’s 1914 Human Zoo celebration is not the most widely known historical fact in the country, or the world. But, for five months, eighty people of African origin (Senegalese) lived in ‘the Congo Village’ in Oslo, surrounded by ‘indigenous African artifacts’. More than half of the Norwegian population at the time paid to visit the exhibition and gawp at the ‘traditionally dressed Africans’, living in palm-roof cabins and going about their daily routine of cooking, eating and making handicrafts. The King of Norway officiated at the opening of the exhibition.
There were several Human Zoos or ‘Colonial exhibitions‘ in Belgium, Germany, France, USA and other western countries at the time, exhibiting Africans and other non-western peoples. These helped convincing the European public opinion of the necessity of colonisation. Exhibiting Africans as animals, uncivilised, primitive, animistic made it sound justified to colonise them. It was also a source of entertainment for the European of the time, to see how ‘backward Africans were’. Indeed after the Norwegian show, Urd, a Norwegian magazine concluded; “it’s wonderful that we are white”. In Belgium, 267 Congolese who were being exhibited died during the show, and were unceremoniously buried in an anonymous common grave. The whole spectacle denied Africans their human dignity. They were treated as animals. The zoos reinforced the feel-good self-congratulatory mood prevalent in Europe then, considering herself as the most advanced society in the world, and othering the rest of the world.
Artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner say that the ignorance around Norway’s racist past inspired them to re-create the human zoo, as the country celebrates 100 more years of independence in May. They secured funds, to the tune of almost one million Norwegian Kroner (167,000 $, ed.), to implement the project. As part of the project, volunteers are invited from around the world, to come and populate the human zoo, but are warned that they will have to defend their participation in the project to individuals, the media and the world.
The artists situate their project in a discourse on the narrative that Norway tells herself, as regards tolerance, equality and human rights. They argue that the project is part of an honest conversation about race and Norway’s unpleasant past. They held a conference in February, in which they featured talks about systematic racism, “The Terrible Beauty of Hindsight”, and “The Origins of the ‘Regime of Goodness’”. They legitimately ask: “How do we confront a neglected aspect of the past that still contributes to our present?”
Muauke B Munfocol, originally from DR Congo and living in Norway, thinks that the project does not “serve as a moment of collective introspection of the still existing but unrecognised racial order and systems of privilege in the country.” She says: “One might wonder why at such a time, rather than putting its efforts to acknowledge the existence of racism, paying reparations, and changing the historical-political and cultural relationship to other non-white countries, the Norwegian government chooses to finance a project that reaffirms their part in a global white domination system where black people are dehumanised spiritually, economically, socially and culturally.”
Muauke’s argument is that the re-enactment of the human zoo as exactly as how it was presented to the Norwegian public in 1914 means “a re-enactment of the fantasies about exoticism and bestiality that have been historically linked to the black body in the colonial mind.” The re-enactment will be a living reality for her, as an African living in Norway. “Once again, the black body will be prepped, scripted and presented to a white gaze. Africans will once again be subjected to a humiliating and dehumanising racialized public spectacle. Slavery and colonialism was and still is a show,” she says.
Muauke is not alone in her indignation at the show. Rune Berglund, head of Norway’s Anti-Racism Centre says that “the only people who will like this are those with racist views. This is something children with African ancestry will hear about and will find degrading. I find it difficult to see how this project could be done in a dignified manner.”
Canadian explorer and entertainer Bill Hunt, aka The Great Farini, at one of his exhibitions displaying people from South Africa in London, 1884.
Africans are still dealing with attitudes that suggest an inability to solve their problems. Political crises in Africa for example, are treated by Western media, civil society and governments as evidence of Africa’s primitive nature, and need for Western intervention (read: civilisation). This shows in how for example, the 2011 Libyan crisis was handled by the American and French governments, with their allies. There is always an urge to protect Africans from killing each other. A similar crisis in many ways in Syria was not responded to similarly. The crisis between Ukraine and Russia wasn’t either. The racial superiority complex of the European mind is not a thing of the past. It is a present thing. The Norwegian Human Zoo is thus not necessarily a mere re-enactment of the past. It is real at many levels.
Fadlabi’s and Cuzner’s goals may be noble. But will their project lead to the type of conversations they claim they want it to be part of? Or is it contributing towards the maintenance and resurgence of racist ideologies in the world? Theirs is not the first shocking “artistic product” in the last three years to present Africans on the same footing as animals. Just a few weeks ago, a Belgian newspaper printed a ‘satirical’ article and photos that compared United States President, Barrack Obama to an ape. The editors claimed that it was mere satire.
In 2012, a Swedish artist made an ‘artistic’ cake installation of a black woman, being cut into, allegedly to provoke discussions around Female Genital Mutilation. A high-ranking politician indeed cut into the black cake, with a human black-painted screaming face. There were laughters and cheers. The discussion on Female Genital Mutilation did not happen. If it did, it was too low-key. The discussion turned onto the representation of Black in a world claiming to be liberal.
Art is not innocent. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, all art is propaganda. In the Cake and Human Zoo re-enactment incidents, the artists do not deny that their art is not pure. They all lay claim to ‘noble’ causes. They want to create and participate in discussions; discussions of race, oppression, colonialism and the ills of yesterday and today as systematic gender and/or racial oppression. Should artists think more about the impact of their work, especially as regards the possible interpretations of the same work? Should governments funding such projects think deeper about all the possible interpretations?
With editors effortlessly comparing a President of a nation to an ape, because of his skin-colour, and passing it off as a joke, satire, there is certainly no post-racial world yet. Does the re-enactment of an oppressive spectacle as a human zoo have more effects than the artists intend? If they do, are there substantial means of neutralising these negative effects? For those who still look at Africans as half-animal, how would the re-enactment of the zoo help them to overcome their prejudice? Won’t it indeed cement the prejudice?
Fadlabi and Cuzner can’t exonerate themselves because they mean well. They must be responsible. Indeed, if they are serious about creating discussions of racism in the post-modern world, they ought to think deeper about the likelihood that their project may entrench the same prejudices they claim to fight.