Two Norwegian artists are about to walk a very fine line between art and racism by restaging a "human zoo" next month to confront the country's past. Staged for Norway's bicentennial, artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner will recreate the “Kongolandsbyen” (or Congo Village), the 1914 exhibition in Oslo that featured 80 Senagalese people surrounded by "African artifacts” as they lived their everyday lives under palm-roof cabins, as Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire reports at This Is Africa. (A video from the 1914 Kongolandsbyen can be seen here.)
The project, named European Attraction Limited, has noble aspirations: to challenge the celebration of Norwegian "goodness" on the 200th anniversary of its constitution by acknowledging the country’s racist past, and "highlighting a very forgotten event." Fadlabi and Cuzner have posted a call for international extras to volunteer in the project online. The ad warns that people must be able to defend their decision to take part, and that heavy media coverage is likely (uh, yes). A two-day conference discussing the project was held in February.
Norway isn't the only country with a history of exhibiting humans from mostly African countries for entertainment. Human zoos, a reminder of the deeply racist and colonial past of countries like Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the United States, helped to strengthen feelings of white and western superiority and were often used to justify colonization, Mwesigire writes. Some see the project looking only to the past without dealing with the present-day.
By swathing a difficult conversation under the auspices of "art," it stands to diminish the importance of confronting Norway's problems with racism now. And although little can be worse than Sweden’s nightmarish FGM cake, meant to represent the horrors of female genital mutilation through the red velvet insides of woman-shaped confectionery, there is a huge risk that the human zoo will come across just as misguided. With luck, the media frenzy around it won't prevent the discussion it's meant to inspire from taking place.