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Paris Exhibition: The Human Zoo

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Paris Exhibition: The Human Zoo

Santorri Chamley reports on a Paris exhibition which brings to light the forgotten stories of thousands of non-white women and children and “imperfect” Europeans who were forced to play dehumanising roles as “savages” and “freaks” in human zoos, linked to scientific racism.

A bust of a young African boy simply titled “Pygmy”, his name Ota Benga, a Mbuti Pygmy. He was brought from the rainforest in Congo, caged and exhibited in the monkey house in New York’s Bronx Zoo, in 1906. He was forced to bare his sharpened teeth to the crowd gawping at him. A sign above his cage read: “The Missing Link”.

A print illustrating a race study by the French naturalist, Julien-Joseph Virey, published in 1824. The head of an African man is categorised as the “missing link” between that of a “superior” European man and an orangutang. Virey’s evolutionary doctrine dehumanised Africans and other non-Europeans by linking them to lower forms of life.

These are just some of the disturbing images at the Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage exhibition taking place at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

Human zoos, a largely repressed symbol of European colonialism, ranged from freak displays and ethnographic shows to museum and colonial exhibitions in which entire native villages were recreated to allow Europeans a glimpse of “primitive” life. The ghoulish, pseudo science and colonial expansion, to which they are intrinsically connected, contributed to the death and oppression of millions of non-white people through slavery and conquest and shaped racial attitudes that still linger today.

Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, which will run until 3 June 2012, is the first exhibition to explore the demeaning European and American mass entertainment phenomenon in its entirety. The idea for it came from Lilian Thuram, a Guadeloupe-born, former French footballer turned anti-racist advocate, who himself suffered racism on and off the pitch.

Set out as a stage show, the exhibition uses a spectacular and shocking collection of multi-media images, artefacts and gruesome scientific paraphernalia to trace the phenomenon’s long and shameful history – from the first modern human zoos in Renaissance Europe, to their heyday in the late 19th century at the peak of European colonialism, and long-overdue demise in 1958. The 600 or so items on show, including previously unseen paintings, sculptures, posters, postcards, archive film and photographs, give an insight into the astonishing scale and success of human zoos.

People from virtually all so-called “inferior,” non-white races with rich and diverse cultures, including Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Inuits, Hindus and Native Americans were exhibited in human zoos. Powerful emerging mass communication tools of the day, including photography and film, were heavily used to promote them as “savages”. As the exhibition highlights, curiosity, admiration, ignorance, colonial expansion and greed all played a role in the invention of the “savage”.

The first part of the show explores human zoos in Europe from the Renaissance to the early 19th century. The phenomenon began in 1492, when the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus presented the Spanish court with six “Indian” captives from the Americas. The fashion for collecting exotic foreigners rapidly spread among powerful European families.

In Italy, the Medici family, one of the wealthiest in Europe, developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th century, Cardinal Hippolito de’ Medici not only had a collection of exotic animals but also an assortment of ‘barbarians’ including Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans. One wonders what his mixed-race cousin, Alessandro, the first Medici duke of Florence made of his human zoo. Alessandro, who ruled Florence from 1529-37, is believed to have been the illegitimate son of either Clement de’ Medici or Lorenzo de’ Medici and Simonetta da Collavechio, a freed black African slave.

Although she is concerned that the exhibition could reinforce racist stereotypes, its scientific curator, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep believes it is time to bring the controversial phenomenon and its legacy into the open.

“Many visitors are shocked and surprised by the amount of images. For me, it’s important to open a discussion about how the West built stereotypes and created its Otherness and put it on stage for over five centuries. We all have stereotypes. It’s an important debate, especially with the growth of the extreme right in Europe including in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and recent racist shootings of Senegalese men in Italy,” she says.

Key images in the first part of the exhibition include a 1775 painting of Omai (with botanist and leading founder of the African Association, Sir Joseph Banks and naturalist, Dr Daniel Solander) by the Welsh artist, William Parry. The young Tahitian, who was brought to England in 1773 during Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas, was Britain’s first black celebrity.

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