Norway’s Controversial Human Zoo Is Back

One hundred years ago, Senegalese natives were put on display in Norway to drum up support for colonialism. Today, two artists have recreated the exhibit…and they stand by their art.

Lise Aserud/Scanpix, via Reuters

Exactly one hundred years ago, Norway opened what would become an immensely popular attraction—a human zoo populated by Senegalese villagers living in grass huts. Over the course of five months, the erroneously named “Congo Village,” drew 1.4 million visitors—more than half the country’s population—to gawk at an exotic cluster of sub-Saharan dwellings and traditionally dressed inhabitants. The display, bizarrely, had been billed as celebration of the bicentennial of Norway’s constitution signing.

On Thursday, the Congo Village reopened. Artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi, a Norwegian-Sudanese, and Lars Cuzner, a Swede, recruited 300 volunteers to live in their historically accurate reconstruction of the 1914 exhibit. Calling it “European Attraction Limited,” Fadlabi and Cuzner say the project aims to highlight not just past colonial mistakes, but also the undercurrent of racism still built into Norwegian society. They want to challenge what they see as an increasingly xenophobic continent.

The cluster of circular huts is set up in Oslo’s stately Frogner Park and will remain open until the end of August. The volunteers, who are not allowed to stay in the village overnight, will come and go throughout the duration of the exhibit, some traveling from as far as Israel and others bringing kids with them.

“It was full-on confusion, I think,” Cuzner says of the opening. “There was no instructions given and no direction whatsoever from us.”

This, it seems, was the artists’ intent. “You go to a zoo to see creatures living, basically,” Fadlabi says. “So this is what we told them to do: we told them to come and live, and then it’s up [to] them.”

Fadlabi and Cuzner spent four years planning the exhibit, which is funded by Public Art Norway, a government organization and Norway’s largest art patron. They caught a tip about the original 1914 zoo and realized that not only was information on it scarce, but also virtually no one they spoke to knew of its existence. “The more people we talked to we realized this had not been entered into the history, it was not something that was taught, and had basically disappeared from the collective consciousness,” Fadlabi says.

Their resurrection of the Congo Village comes just as Norway celebrates the 200th birthday of its constitution. “We thought about challenging the 2014 celebration by suggesting to reenact The Congo Village,” the artists write on their website, “to question the collective loss of memory, the nation building process, the message of Norwegian goodness, by highlighting a very forgotten event in Norway.”

The basis of their piece is what they perceive as a shift from the scientific racism that once put Scandinavians atop the food chain, to race superiority based on morality and humanitarian values—“which still sends the same message that this is the most developed people in the world,” Cuzner says.

At the turn of the century, zoos displaying so-called primitive cultures were used to drum up public support for colonialism. In Belgium, a village of 267 Congolese were displayed, even after some died during the exhibit. Today, two Belgian flags currently wave outside the entrance to the new Congo Village alongside two Norwegian ones. The Belgian ambassador demanded they be removed, but Fadlabi and Cuzner have refused.

“The same people that scientific racism had at the top of the hierarchy are still on the top of the hierarchy today,” Cuzner says. “European Attraction Limited” does not aim to comment on primitive racism—based on how someone looks—but rather on a more subtle and modern form that uses a moral pedestal as grounds for discrimination. They say, for example, that gay-rights campaigns in Norway often target and protest homophobia in Islam, but they ignore similar sentiments in Christianity. Cuzner argues that the “the dangerous racism in this society is one seen based on same values that are supposed to be fighting racism.”

The project has, predictably, already ruffled feathers among those who mistakenly believe the project is a real human zoo and those who disagree with the artists’ decision to recreate a horrible historic stunt. “Before you submit, you should be aware that this project is heavily critiqued by a group of people in Norway,” the artists’ call for volunteers warns. “You will most likely be asked to defend your participation.”

Even before it was unveiled, critics were attacking the 21st-century version of the offensive original “zoo.” "It is desirable that we talk about how we celebrated the anniversary last time," the chairman of Norway's Centre against Racism said of the project’s proposal in January. "But here, it's being done in a way that will create many unexpected consequences and reactions. I think the only ones who will enjoy this are those with racist attitudes."

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This weekend, #SomeoneTellNorway took off on Twitter after a popular Kenyan musician tweeted his anger at the project. "SHOCKING: Africans Being Exhibited like animals in Norway’s Human Zoo," he wrote, setting off a firestorm of tweets.

The exhibit has also riled a fringe faction for a completely different, but revealing, reason: Fadlabi told a local paper that neo-Nazis had sent them threats to burn the village down because it was going to pollute national identity.

This melting pot of naysayers hasn’t dissuaded Fadlabi and Cuzner, who say that the idea of the human zoo is to let people confront the different opinions that it incites and then to form their own judgment. That’s why they chose a more confrontational piece, rather than simply displaying a batch of archival photos that had slipped off of Norway’s collective radar.

“We know the images make you feel like you have nothing to do with this,” Fadlabi says. “We thought it’s so important to take it all the way, and that’s when we built the village.”