A Human Zoo

by Jessie Roberts

European Attraction Limited, a project by artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, seeks to re-enact a human zoo that Norway hosted in 1914:

Three years ago we stumbled upon information about a human zoo that had taken place in the heart of Oslo in 1914. Not being from this country, naturally, we assumed that this was common knowledge among natives, so, in an interest to learn more about the general consent on the exhibition, we started asking around. As it turned out pretty much no one we talked to had ever heard about it (even if they had heard of human zoos in other countries). Given how popular the exhibition was (1.4 million visitors saw it at a time when the population of Norway was 2 million) the widespread absence of at least a general knowledge was surprising. It is hard to understand the mechanisms of how something could be wiped from the collective memory.

The original zoo was explicitly racist:

[F]or five months, 80 people of African origin (Senegalese) lived in “the Congo village” in Oslo, surrounded by “indigenous African artefacts”. 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.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire notes that some are taking offense to the restaging:

Muauke B Munfocol, who lives in Norway and is originally from DRC, thinks that the project does not recognise the “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 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. … Muauke is not alone in her indignation. Rune Berglund, head of Norway’s Anti-Racism Centre says: “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.”

Jillian Steinhauer also has doubts about what the new zoo will achieve:

For their contemporary update … Fadlabi and Cuzner have altered things slightly but significantly: participants are not limited to one race or nationality. “We chose volunteers based on the texts they submit as their application to participate,” Fadlabi told Hyperallergic; the volunteer form is posted online and includes an invitation — “We welcome anybody from anywhere in the world who believes in the importance of the discussion about colonialism, the evolution of racism, equality” — as well as caveats like “You will most likely be asked to defend your participation.” …

On one hand, it’s a relief that the artists have omitted the horrific racism of the original exhibit — it’s hard to imagine how a restaging of those stereotypes could advance a productive conversation of any kind. On the other, it’s hard not to wonder if the change renders the whole project too vague to achieve the intended effect. What will the takeaway be — that putting humans in zoos is bad? …

When I asked [the artists] specifically about the races, nationalities, and/or ethnicities of the zoo volunteers, Fadlabi turned the query on me: “The question itself poses another question – is it different for you if all the volunteers are black? Is it different for you if 2 out of 80 are white?” My response was that if we’re attempting to talk about racial dynamics and prejudices, then yes, these things do matter. I do not wish for Fadlabi and Cuzner to recruit 80 Norwegian residents of African descent and build a zoo for them in the name of art and a wished-for national conversation; but I am uncertain, and curious, about how “European Attraction Limited” will inspire thoughtful conversation of any kind.

(Video: Footage from the 1914 exhibition)