Two Artists Are Building a Human Zoo in Norway

Some of the inhabitants of the 1914 Kongolandsbyen (image via Wikimedia)
Some of the inhabitants of the 1914 Kongolandsbyen (image via Wikimedia)

Tomorrow, to mark the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution, two artists will open a human zoo in Oslo. “European Attraction Limited,” as the project is called, is actually a re-creation of a racist human zoo that Norway hosted in 1914, when the country celebrated the centennial of its constitution with a world’s fair. The reenactment is being organized by artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, who were born in Sudan and Sweden, respectively, but both currently live and work in Oslo.

On the website for the project, the artists offer an explanation of how “European Attraction Limited” came about:

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.

From there Fadlabi and Cuzner decided to reenact the zoo, not only to stir the Norwegian collective memory but also to trace connections between the racism of early-20th-century Europe and “a more contemporary idea of superiority of goodness” that the artists say abounds in their adopted country.

The original Norwegian zoo, called Kongolandsbyen, or “Congo village,” actually housed 80 people from Senegal. They were placed in palm-roof cabins, dressed like “traditional Africans,” and put on display while they cooked, ate, and made crafts. As Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire writes in the Guardian, “More than half of the Norwegian population at the time paid to visit the exhibition and gawp … The king of Norway officiated at the opening of the exhibition.” The artists say that despite extensive research, they’ve been unable to find a much information about the Kongolandsbyen. Cuzner has posted a brief clip of archival footage online:

For their contemporary update — which, since its announcement in the press, has been subject to heavy criticism and debate, not least because it’s government-funded — 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.” The piece is titled “European Attraction Limited” after the name of the English company that was contracted to build the 1914 Congo village, according to NOUSE.

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?

Fadlabi and Cuzner have theoretically situated “European Attraction Limited” in the realm of historical reenactment. When asked over email why they felt that was the best approach to the subject, Fadlabi replied:

There are of course many ways to approach any given idea, but this piece is about tracing historical implications on contemporary realities. Alternative approaches are problematic for their own reasons, archival imagery for instance allow the viewer to distance themselves from that history, and this, to feel that a history one did not live in has nothing to do with ones life today is precisely one of the mechanisms that allow contemporary complacency – and the extension of that is – what we do today does not influence a future we will not live in. Furthermore, it is entirely essential to understand that the currently accepted narrative of a ethically and intellectually superior Scandinavia is directly tied to the scientific ethnic superiority of the recent past; they both describe a people winning the race of evolutionary development. To understand the correlation between these two seemingly opposing positions it seems completely relevant to actually see the past and the present in the same time.

But it remains to be seen how the artists will achieve this. When I asked them 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.

Kongolandsbyen 2014 – European Attraction Limited” opens in Oslo’s Frognerparken tomorrow evening.

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