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With both neo-Nazis and anti-racists apparently threatening to burn down his planned recreation of a 1914 Oslo ‘human zoo’, the Norwegian-Sudanese artist Mohamed Ali Fadlabi is now more convinced than ever of his idea.
Work is now well underway on the “Congo Village” in Norway’s Frogner Park, Fadlabi says, with the entrance gate half-constructed, grass roofing going onto the huts, and more than 80 volunteers recruited as specimens for visitors to scrutinize.
“We’ve got threats from so-called anti-racist people and we’ve had threats from neo-Nazis at the same time,” Fadlabi tells The Local. “It’s so funny, sometimes it seems like it’s the same person. The anti-racists threaten to burn the village down, and then you’ll get the same promise from the neo-Nazis that they wants to destroy this village which is going to pollute the national identity.”
The original Congolese village was built as part of the centenary celebrations for the Norwegian constitution back in 1914, and featured 80 African people shipped in to entertain festival-goers.
Fadlabi told The Local that he and his Swedish collaborator Lars Cuznor had been amazed at how little was known about the village in Norway when they first conceived the project.
“When we heard about it we thought it was a rumour, but then when we started researching it we found out it was true,” Fadlabi told The Local. “When we started asking around we were really surprised that no one knew about it.”
When the two artists announced their plan back in 2011, it generated instant controversy.
Sam Chimaobi Ahamba, the then chairman of the African Youth Norway condemned it as “a reproduction of the stigma we saw in 1914”.
“We should not be ready to connect it [the Congo Village] either to the bicentenary or to anything else good, progressive and anti-racist”.
In January, Rune Berglund Steen, chairman of Norway’s Centre against Racism, argued that the recreation of the exhibition would only please racists.
“It is desirable that we talk about how we celebrated the anniversary last time,” he said. “But here, it’s being done in a way that will create many unexpected consequences and reactions. I think the only ones who will enjoy this are those with racist attitudes.”
Fadlabi says his volunteers, who responded to an advert put out on e-flux, an international art site, are coming from all over the world and will not be instructed on how to dress or behave.
“It’s a zoo, so people are just living, and it’s up to them how they want to live. We’re not giving any instructions.”
He says he wants the exhibition to help Norwegians see through some of their more comfortable national myths.
“We want to challenge the Norwegian self-image of goodness and try to understand it,” he says. “Norway and Scandinavia in general were at the top of the hierarchy in the era of scientific racism and we feel this didn’t change so much, but rather than in racism, it’s in ethics and equality.”
He says he was surprised at the way the original zoo had been airbrushed out of Norwegian history.
“It’s totally forgotten. It’s so strange we can’t understand the reason for this collective amnesia. No one knew about this village until we brought it up,” he says.
“We feel that the image that Norway is showing to the world and to themselves is not really an honest one.”
– The Local