African artists and workers protest their treatment at a Korean museum. (photo Kang Chang-kwang for the Hankyoreh, used with permission)

African artists and workers protest their treatment at a Korean museum. (photo by Kang Chang-kwang for the Hankyoreh, used with permission)

African artists hired by a Korean museum have been laboring under conditions “similar to indentured servitude,” South Korean newspaper the Hankyoreh reported. Their allegations about the circumstances under which they lived and worked at the museum are appalling.

The 24 artists came from various countries in Africa, including Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso, to sculpt, perform, and do other tasks at the Africa Museum of Original Art in the northern city of Pocheon several years ago. They claim they were promised salaries of at least minimum wage — 1,269,154 won ($1,183) per month — and comfortable accommodations; instead, they were paid severely less — 500,000 or 650,000 won per month — and forced to live in cold, mice-ridden rooms. Their salaries barely covered the cost of three meals a day, and the museum gave them only spoiled rice to eat. Their contracts stipulated three performances per day, but they were often forced to do four to six performances, with no paid vacation time and no bonuses. When they complained to museum management, their concerns were either ignored and dismissed. “I thought this was a lot of money in your country,” one administrator apparently retorted.

A reporter named Bang Jun-ho at Hankyoreh visited some of the artists’ living quarters in an attempt to verify their story. Despite Museum Director Park Sang-soon’s assurance that a certain room was in “in somewhat decent shape,” Bang found a small, freezing cold space covered with mold. Looking at the workers’ bank slips, Bang also confirmed the allegations about being underpaid. “There were even times when their monthly wages fell below 500,000 won, supposedly to cover their airfare,” the reporter writes. Park countered that “we provided the workers the four basic kinds of insurance, paid the rent for their accommodations, and covered the electricity bill. If you include all of those things, their salary reaches 1.1 million won.” Bang, in turn, explains what that really amounts to: “This means that the museum deducted 400,000 won a month per person for sleeping at a shabby, moldy flophouse and paying the electricity bill.” Hankyoreh also has a photo of one of the worker’s contracts, signed in Seoul, which according to the reporter stipulates a salary of $650 per month, an eight-hour workday, and at least one day off per week. (The pictured final page of the contract, which is in French, does not contain these terms, but does reveal that museum chairman Hong Moon-jong signed the contract with the artist in Seoul.)

Eight of the original group of workers have since returned home, while another four fled the awful working conditions. The remaining 12 — whose passports were confiscated after their colleagues ran away — protested outside the ruling Saenuri Party’s headquarters on Monday. Their location was carefully chosen: the chairman of the museum, Hong Moon-jong, is also a senior lawmaker and secretary general for the party. “I was the best dancer in my home village,” said a dancer named Emmanuel. “I have never been treated like this anywhere else in the world.”

At the protest, Ju Bong-hee, vice president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, commented, “These are things that happened in the 21st century at a museum run by a third-term lawmaker in the ruling political party.”

Hong did not appear at the event and has been trying to distance himself from the scandal. “Although I’m the chairman of the museum, I‘ve given all management authority to Director Park,” he said. “All I do is support the museum.” But the contract obtained by the Hankyoreh was clearly signed by Hong himself. “This does not conform to the facts in several respects, but I will state my opinion after an internal investigation and legal counsel,” he said in a press release. “In front of the Korean people, I deeply regret that such a thing could have happened.”

Promotional photo for the Africa Museum of Original Ar (ⓒ Gyeonggi Tourism Organization, via

Promotional photo for the Africa Museum of Original Art (ⓒ Gyeonggi Tourism Organization, via

Horrible though this story is, it fits easily into a larger history of museums and other organizations treating people of certain backgrounds as exotic ‘specimens’ rather than human beings — everything from human zoos and the exploitation of ‘native’ people at World’s Fairs to the chilling tale of the Inuit family brought over from Greenland to be studied by staff at the American Museum of Natural History in the late 19th century. Consider this description of the Africa Museum of Original Art by the Gyeonggi (a province in South Korea) Tourism Organization:

A long trip half-way around the world is unnecessary when you can visit the Africa Museum of Original Art right here in Korea. The Africa Museum of Original Art, the largest museum in Asia dedicated to different ethnic groups of the African continent, exhibits thousands of relics imported from Africa. African dances are performed on stage. Children can learn how to play percussion instruments and make crafts. You can also take a stroll around the Sculpture Park and lake. The museum is very popular among children.

A bright, cheery photo of musicians and dancers in matching outfits accompanies the blurb. Its caption:

You will be surprised by the colorful traditional dance on stage at Africa Museum of Original Art. Find yourself completely engaged in African exotic culture.

If the performers are just more exotic relics, there’s no need to treat them humanely.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

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