Human zoos were despicable 19th and 20th century creations that allowed White visitors to see how “primitive” people from around the world lived. Also called “ethnological expositions,” human zoos were popular attractions throughout Europe, springing up in Paris, Hamburg, London, Milan, Barcelona, Oslo, and even New York, welcoming millions of tourists each year. The “Negro Village” was a crowd-pleaser at several World’s Fairs, and the egregious practice was so successful that a 1931 “colonial” exhibition in Paris, which featured “Senegalese villages,” garnered over 33 million visitors in six months.
In 1914, Norway debuted the Kongoslandsbyen, or “Congo Village,” during the World’s Fair in Oslo. Opened by the King of Norway to commemorate the country’s 100th anniversary, the “zoo” lasted five months and consisted of 80 Senegalese men, women, and children.
Just in time for the country’s 200th anniversary, Norwegian-Sudanese artist Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Swedish-Canadian artist Lars Cuznor decided to recreate a “human zoo” to highlight Norway’s history of colonization and racism, a fact many Norwegians no nothing about.
“Norwegians have been propagating this self-image of a post-racial society and it’s been internalized that it’s a good, tolerant society,” Cuznor told Reuters. “It’s great branding and it’s self-perpetuating but it’s a false image.”
Fadlabi added, “Norwegians felt superior in 1914 and they still do through their self image of goodness.”
The Norwegian government gave the artists 1.4 million crowns ($240,000) to create the project, kicking off debate about whether or not the money could have been spent on something more useful.
Others questioned if recreating a “human zoo” would really lead to a meaningful conversation on racism or merely perpetuate stereotypes.
Writer Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire argued that while the artists’ aims may be noble, recreating the “zoo” may do more harm than good.
Art is not innocent, “Mwesigire asserted. “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?
We are not in a post-racial world. Fadlabi and Cuzner can’t exonerate themselves because they mean well. Indeed, if they are serious about creating discussions of racism they ought to think deeper about the likelihood that their project may entrench the same prejudices they claim to fight.