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Does telling history honestly justify resurrecting human zoos?
May 2, 2014 8:34 AM   Subscribe

As part of the bicentennial celebrations of the constitution of Norway, two artists are recreating the "human zoo" featured at the 1914 Oslo World Fair.

During the colonial era, human zoos, featuring "primitive" and native peoples in their supposedly natural habitats were quite held throughout Europe and America, most famously in the special 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. They largely died out after World War II though surprisingly slowly, but every now and again somebody tries to resurrect them.

In this case, the two artists behind the plan, Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, want to recreate 1914's Kongolandsbyen to showcase the racist and colonial elements of Norway's history:
The artists situate their project in a discourse on the narrative that Norway tells herself regarding 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?"
Critics are not impressed, with some worried about the impact on Norwegians of colour:
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.”
While others, as DRC born Muauke B Munfocol explains, are convinced that:
"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.
Coverage of this plan has spread outside of Norway, with most the coverage (e.g. Guardian) being negative as you might expect.

(More background information on human zoos and their long, postwar history in Europe.)
posted by MartinWisse (22 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
"I want an honest exploration of past racism. But whoa, not sure this is a good idea. But maybe it is. But damn it walks a fine line. Probably too fine a line. I hate this idea. But then again maybe I don't. I want an honest exploration..." *repeat ad infinitum*

(I look forward to this thread maybe breaking me out of this loop.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:48 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


No.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:55 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]


I heard a radio interview with these guys... not to dog pile on them but yeah they sounded douchey and their ideas were poorly justified.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:59 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


So, would we make a model of Auschwitz with live actors to spark discussion of totalitarianism, anti-semitism, medical ethics, or whatever?
posted by mareli at 9:01 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


From the article:

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.

I'd argue that the same sort of smug self-assurance of their own *enlightened* European cultural superiority is clearly demonstrated in the very idea of this *artistic* reenactment. A sense of "we're advanced and enlightened enough to do this now, because we're aware of the past", etc etc. An innate self-image of superiority that many Europeans maintain to this day, which, it must be said, is one of the most unfortunate aspects of what could be called a "European character".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:02 AM on May 2 [8 favorites]


They legitimately ask: "How do we confront a neglected aspect of the past that still contributes to our present?"

Personally I would probably start with a really well-curated, high-profile museum exhibit on human zoos and colonialism, and maybe there's an artist who wants to make a movie that brings it to life really viscerally for modern people while using the artist's POV to make the point about it being shitty. But probably by contextualizing the horrible thing and not by actually recreating the horrible thing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:02 AM on May 2 [16 favorites]


I was astounded to see - in a photo sidebar - that this kind of thing occurred as recently as 1958 in a Brussels World Fair.

Anyone familiar with World's Fairs knows this was pretty typical a century ago. In fact, these human exhibits were usually far more egregious and ubiquitous than the Norwegian example.

I don't agree with all these negative reactions to the artists' proposal, though. Ignoring past genocide, slavery and racial injustice or keeping it in archival territory is the usual way we Westerners deal with it; I think this project would be a good way to remind white people of how recently -- and how long -- we treated non-whites as animals.

Although if the artists are as douchey and inarticulate as St. Peepsburg thinks (above in thread)...never mind. In fact, as various people have piped up in the five minutes I've taken in typing these thoughts: I abjure everything I said. A man has a right to change his mind!
posted by kozad at 9:06 AM on May 2


mareli: So, would we make a model of Auschwitz with live actors to spark discussion of totalitarianism, anti-semitism, medical ethics, or whatever?

There have been Holocaust movies to that end; which is a difference of degree, so this doesn't seem so absurd as I think you are implying. I think it would probably be too distasteful because it would be hard to avoid the theme park feeling, whereas "the movies" can easily switch between gravity and popcorn. But I'm not perpared to write off even the possiblity of a recreation that could be done in a profound, respectful and artistic way.
posted by spaltavian at 9:11 AM on May 2


The problem with recreating a human zoo to remind white people that we have a racist history is that you are once again coopting non-white people for the edification of white folks. Reflecting on a shameful past by doing the same thing is just behaving badly in the present. And it isn't the job of nonwhite Norwegians to offer their bodies to make other Norwegians feel better about it.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:12 AM on May 2 [9 favorites]


Ignoring past genocide, slavery and racial injustice or keeping it in archival territory is the usual way we Westerners deal with it

I agree, but I think there is a vast territory between "forgetting/ignoring" and "recreating racist acts." It's all kinds of fucked up to me that these artists did what seems like the least creative and challenging thing possible.
posted by rtha at 9:15 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


The only way I could imagine this possibly working, and even then it would be walking a razor's edge, would be something like a Europeans zoo, with different people doing stereotypical European things. Lederhosen and dirndls, eating bangers and mash, etc.
posted by kmz at 9:18 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]


MartinWisse writes: Coverage of this plan has spread outside of Norway, with most the coverage (e.g. Guardian) being negative as you might expect.

That Guardian link is the same article as the main link. So, I don't understand a) why it is included here and b) why you've editorially characterized it as "negative as you might expect".

Since you indicate that you've seen other coverage, MartinWisse… any links?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:19 AM on May 2


I like that they want people to think about the experience of historical racism, versus the self-congratulatory pat on the back (Canada could use some of that, too - people often turn a blind eye to stuff that happened to the Metis, Quebecois before 1968, Japanese Canadians during WWII and First Nations folks)...

...but there's no need to make it with live people. Why not make it with artistic representations that heighten the artificiality, yet get people thinking? You could show paintings of the people observing, the people in chains, then compare and contrast it to current human rights abuses and behaviors... For instance, you could show how in the modern day, there are no human zoos because this kind of behavior has shifted to forced labor in factories and homes, and sex tourism preying on underage prostitutes.

Mareli, you brought up Auschwitz. The experience people get going through the Washington D.C. Holocaust museum does make people feel like they've experienced what the victims and survivors of the Holocaust went through. It's not living history with live actors, but people are given a token to help identify with "their" survivor or victim, so they can walk through. Imagine if they developed this so that the walkthrough, they either get a token tying them to an African zoo captive, or one of the Scandinavian people observing. That gets people thinking about not just how barbaric it is, but how cultural mores of the times would allow people to so dehumanize someone else.

There are other methods. The historical museum in Abilene uses holograms. The San Antonio culture museum uses sound design to explain the religious beliefs of Native Americans. Sound design with just some artifacts from that period could be mind-blowing.

There are ways they could do this without exploiting modern people.

Maybe someone should just clue them to the "Ask a Slave" series on YouTube.
posted by mitschlag at 9:30 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


I could see this working if the people in the human zoo consisted of exactly and only the artists who came up with the idea. If they're willing to put *themselves* on exhibit, that's one thing.

Oh, one of them is white? Well, maybe they can have a human zoo of a human zoo, where the "exhibit" consists of a Lars Cuzner in period clothing of 100 years ago or whatever, himself looking at an outlandishly exoticized Mohamed Ali Fadlabi. (Or even better, vice versa!) That would be interestingly "meta" I guess, and it would be people speaking out with their own persons rather than using other people.

Oh, they want *other people* to volunteer to be in their exhibit, rather than do the performance themselves? yeah, that doesn't sound so cool.
posted by edheil at 9:34 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


We don't have human zoos anymore for lots of reasons, but a smart artist could draw a direct parallel between the practice of human zoos, (and contemporaneous practices of "touring" madhouses and freak shows) and modern reality TV.

We still make entertainment out of people who are disadvantaged or outside the norm, we just do it differently, possibly less exploitatively,, though again, there's lots of discussion to be had. You could build a great exhibit around that.

Just recreating a human zoo is lazy and stupid, as well as offensive.
posted by emjaybee at 10:23 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]


This should really have a link to Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco's performance art project where they exhibited themselves as "undiscovered" hybrid people, with the unexpected outcome that many of the people attending believed the fiction. From the article:

Enacting rituals of “authentic” daily life such as writing on a laptop computer, watching TV, making voodoo dolls, and pacing the cage garbed in Converse high-tops, raffia skirts, plastic beads, and a wrestler’s mask, the two “Amerindians” rendered a hybrid pseudo primitivism that struck a nerve. Interested members of the audience could pay for dances, stories, and Polaroids. Guilt, molestation, confusion, and letters to the humane society were among audience responses. Nearly half the visitors that saw the cage in Irvine, London, Madrid, Minneapolis, and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. believed that the two were real captives, true natives somehow tainted by the detritus of technology and popular culture.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:29 AM on May 2 [5 favorites]


I can understand people's problems with this politically, though perhaps the real interest for me isn't the exhibit (which I agree seems a clumsy and contrived) as much as the concept of examining these past actions that actually has the potential to be quite profound.
posted by Middlemarch at 2:40 PM on May 2


Seattle has a replica African village in its zoo, which always struck me as remarkably offensive. There are no humans live in it though.
posted by miyabo at 7:16 PM on May 2


I think it would probably be too distasteful because it would be hard to avoid the theme park feeling.

As a part time historical reenactor, I completely agree with this statement. My experience has been that there is a large subsection of historical events that do not need to be portrayed for public consumption. Not just because they're outrageously offensive, but because they're also really ineffective.

Portraying a live event that is designed to make people feel awkward, angry, or guilty is profound in theory, but doesn't always lead to a greater desire to examine man's inhumanity to man. What does seem to happen is that people use the event as a way to engage in transformative touring. They endure watching the reenactment for an hour, get a vague sense of what it must have been like to be treated as less than a person, then pat themselves on the back for "suffering" through it before returning to their everyday lives.

I may just be jaded, but I don't think that this event would achieve what they think that it will, and is going to offend and hurt a large number of people for no good reasn.
posted by Shouraku at 9:45 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


Well, Norway is a prevalently white country so there may not be a very good general feeling for what is offensive and racist, and what is not.

So I guess a human zoo (including volunteers of all races) to make people think about animal zoos - ok.

A white-only zoo in a mostly-black country - ok as a little joke or a 'sorry' perhaps.

But another black-only zoo in a mostly-white country? Well, I don't know. People who feel uncomfortable with the idea will probably not go to see it. Those who will go to see it might be just the type who secretly or openly sympathise with Breivik for not knowing any better.
posted by Laotic at 4:08 AM on May 3


flaptax: I'd argue that the same sort of smug self-assurance of their own *enlightened* European cultural superiority is clearly demonstrated in the very idea of this *artistic* reenactment. A sense of "we're advanced and enlightened enough to do this now, because we're aware of the past", etc etc. An innate self-image of superiority that many Europeans maintain to this day, which, it must be said, is one of the most unfortunate aspects of what could be called a "European character".

Although I might find this particular artistry distasteful, your comment reeks of an easily identifiable form of petulant nationalism laced with the ensuant vulgarity of the arrogance of ignorance.

Allow me the usage of parlance that you should be familiar with:

Europeans? Do you mean all of them, or just these dudes, bro? Your ill-considered comment needs a revision and, I dare say, an apology.
posted by Zenabi at 8:29 AM on May 3


petulant nationalism

I made no mention of my nation. I didn't say my nation was better than any other nation, I didn't compare my nation to any single European nation or to Europe as a whole. Your choice of the word "nationalism" was a poor one, or perhaps you don't exactly understand what the word means.

Europeans? Do you mean all of them, or just these dudes, bro?

Perhaps you should read more carefully. I wrote (as you quoted) "many Europeans". That doesn't mean *all* Europeans, nor just *these* Europeans. Oh, and I very rarely use the word, "dude", so don't you be trying to use my "parlance" if you ain't gonna get it right. Bro.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:52 AM on May 3


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