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Norway to re-instate the 'human zoo' … no, for real

Over the course of 5 months in 1914, more than half the population of Norway paid to visit "The Congo Village" and stare at 80 Africans living in make-shift palm-roof cabins and going about their "daily lives"
Wikimedia Commons

Imagine someone in America trying to get away with a stunt this ridiculous and half-baked. In order to commemorate Oslo's 1914 World's Fair and the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution, two artists are going to re-enact one of the event's most controversial (and crazy racist) exhibits: the Kongolandsbyen, better known as the human zoo. That's right, on May 15 if you happen to find yourself in Oslo, Norway, you can celebrate the country's birthday by dropping some of your hard-earned money to look at a group of imprisoned black people.

On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, the two artists responsible for the lovingly dubbed European Attraction Limited exhibit, have resurrected the human zoo to "provoke a discussion on colonialism and racism in a post-modern world, engaging with Norway's racist past in the process." While a first read might make you think that blurb sounds like pseudo-intellectual garbage, it still reads that way a second time through. Maybe a third readthrough will get it to click … nope, still stupid.

But don't take my word for it! Let's hear from some people who are way smarter than me:

Muauke B Munfocol, originally from DR Congo puts it eloquently: "One might wonder why at such a time, rather than putting its efforts to acknowledge the existence of racism, paying reparations, and changing the historical-political and cultural relationship to other non-white countries, the Norwegian government chooses to finance a project that reaffirms their part in a global white domination system where black people are dehumanised spiritually, economically, socially and culturally."

Rune Berglund, the head of Norway's Anti-Racism Centre adds: "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."

On the European Attraction Limited web site, the artists' attempt to shed further light on their motivation is underwhelming. Fadlabi and Cuzner claim that rebuilding The Congo Village is meant "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 high-minded language reads well but does little to explain why recreating such a horrific chapter in our shared history will lead to a discussion on these difficult topics. This brief validation is then followed by several caveats meant to prepare any potential volunteers for the onslaught of negative attention they can expect to receive by participating.

Heck, Fadlabi and Cuzner are already planning to publish a book about their experience. Not to call B-S, but that reads less like an attempt to change the way we think about race and more like an attempt to get attention through controversial “art.” If you're convinced of the artists' noble intent, then more power to you, but to this writer, it seems like a case of two hundred years of slow, minute forward progress only to end up right back where we began.

Have you been moved by this attempt to dredge up painful memories by simulating one of the more degrading moments in world history? Is art only cool when it's making people uncomfortable? If that sounds like you, you can sign up to participate in this idiocy right here.

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