Alarm at humans in zoo show

By Caroline Mortimer

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

In 1914, Norway celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its constitution by establishing a human zoo in which a Congolese village was recreated, complete with Africans in traditional dress for paying customers to gawp at.

Such was the exhibition's success that two-thirds of the country's population visited the site. "Exceedingly funny," wrote Norway's leading newspaper, Aftenposten. "It's wonderful we are white," concluded the magazine Urd.

Now, to mark the constitution's 200-year anniversary next month, two artists are planning to re-stage the event. Despite insisting the exhibit - this time featuring volunteers - is being installed to force Norwegians to face their country's illiberal past, the news has been met with horror by anti-racism groups.

"This is taking it too far," said Rune Berglund, head of Norway's Anti-Racism Centre. "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."

The original exhibition, called The Congolese Village, was staged in Frogner Park, Oslo, and opened by the King of Norway. It ran for five months and, as well as a roller-coaster and pantomime theatre, showed 80 African men, women and children living in palm-roof cabins, surrounded by indigenous artefacts.

It was the idea of a London-based Hungarian-born impresario named Benno Singer, and was marketed as a carnival freak show. It tapped into an enthusiasm in other parts of Europe for human zoos, which were supposed to show off the civilising effect of colonialism. Huge crowds gathered to see a similar exhibition in Belgium, despite some of the 267 Congolese villagers dying during the show's run and being unceremoniously buried in a common grave.

The artists behind the new project, Mohamed Ali Fadlabi from Sudan and Lars Cuzner from Sweden, say a lack of awareness among contemporary Norwegians of the 1914 exhibit prompted them to re-stage it.

Fadlabi and Cuzner say they have received threats from both anti-racism organisations and neo-Nazis, but remain committed to the project.

- Independent

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