Norway’s infamous ‘human zoo’ was a travesty in 1914. Here’s why it was brought back in 2014.

Guests attend the opening of the "Congo Village" in Oslo May 15, 2014. Displaying 80 people in a human zoo in Oslo's most elegant park, two artists hope their "Congo Village" display will help erase what they say is Norwegians' collective amnesia about racism. The Congo Village - which 100 years ago displayed African tribes, attracting 1.4 million visitors over four months - will this time exhibit volunteers taking turns living on show in makeshift huts, resembling a traditional sub-Saharan village. Picture taken May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lise Aserud/NTB Scanpix (NORWAY - Tags: SOCIETY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NORWAY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NORWAY. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Guests attend the opening of the "Congo Village" on May 15. Two artists hope that displaying 80 people in a human zoo in Oslo's most elegant park will help change what they say is Norwegians' collective amnesia about racism. (Reuters/Lise Aserud/NTB Scanpix)

Sometimes, you hear about the controversy surrounding something before you actually hear about the thing itself. Such was the case with European Attraction Limited, an art exhibition that opened in Oslo, Norway, last week. News about the event had barely made a dent in the English language before it was mired in controversy: Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina fired off a volley of angry tweets about it, for example, while an article in This Is Africa wondered if the artists had "overlooked the pain and humiliation this may bring to Africans worldwide."

Given the history that inspired European Attraction Limited, the controversy isn't that surprising. It goes back to 1914, when Kongolandsbyen ("The Congo Village") was a central part of Oslo's World Fair celebrations. The attraction brought 80 Africans from Senegal (purportedly from the Congo) to the Norwegian capital in what has been described as a "human zoo." The men and women wore traditional clothes and lived in specially created huts. It was apparently a big hit, helping to bring 1.4 million people to the world fair celebrations and described as "exceedingly funny" by Norway’s newspaper of record, Aftenposten.

Kongolandsbyen is clearly a nasty moment in history, but it's one that Lars Cuznor and Mohamed Ali Fadlabi felt should be revisited. The artists, Swedish and Norwegian-Sudanese respectively, reconstructed Kongolandsbyen for European Attraction Limited, marking the 100th anniversary of the original on May 15, 2014, and the 200th anniversary of Norway's constitutions. Volunteers of all races signed up to live in the "human zoo," with $240,000 in funding awarded by government agency Public Art Norway.

Things haven't been easy for the creators. The pair reportedly received threats from neo-Nazis and anti-racists alike, and last week the hashtag #SomeoneTellNorway was being used to criticize the concept. But Cuznor and Fadlabi certainly started a debate, not just about the concept of "human zoos" (which also existed in Belgium, France and, yes, the United States, among other nations), but more broadly about racism, colonialism and history.

I e-mailed a few questions to Cuznor and Fadlabi last month. Their joint responses are below.


Artists Lars Cuzner, left and Mohamed Ali Fadlabi. attended the opening of their exhibition, a re-creation of the Congo Village, in Oslo last week. (AP Photo/NTB Scanpix, Lise Aserud)

So, what led you to begin on this project?

We used to work at the same gallery in 2010. Lars had a project where he worked as a fake shrink over the period of one year and had several clients, and Fadlabi used to run a platform for younger Norwegian artists every Monday night where he showed a new artist for one night only. We heard about the village, and we assumed that this was common knowledge among [Norwegian] natives. So, in an interest to learn more about the general consent on the exhibition, we started asking around.

As it turned out, pretty much no one we talked to had ever heard about it (even if they had heard of human zoos in other countries). Given how popular the exhibition was (1.4 million visitors saw it at a time when the population of Norway was 2 million) the widespread absence of at least a general knowledge was surprising. It is hard to understand the mechanisms of how something could be wiped from the collective memory. We decided then to work on this project.

Do you think Norway is especially ignorant of its racist past? Is it more ignorant than other nations?

Norway is not more ignorant, but Scandinavia in general has a hard time accepting the racist realities embedded in the system and culture because the idea of superior goodness is a message that starts from an early age and is reaffirmed continually through messages of chart-topping moral standings.

It is entirely essential to understand that the currently accepted narrative of a morally superior Scandinavia is directly tied to the scientific ethnic superiority of the recent past; they both describe a people winning the race of evolutionary development. To understand the correlation between these two seemingly opposing positions, it is necessary to look at what parts of the nation-building branding are connected to which historical manifestations.

How has the reaction been so far? Has there been more criticism from conservatives or liberals? Any unexpected supporters?

We have a bit of both, support and criticism. We have even had some threats. and they are as well from all sorts of people. You can label them the way you want.

What would you hope people feel or think about when they visit Kongolandsbyen?

It’s just another art show, and we want it to be a good one.

Is there not a danger that people won’t react the way you hope? 

The occurrence of human zoos is something that a lot of countries have to deal with historically, but today there are other forms of ethnic tourism, slum tourism and humanitarian tours (like visiting orphanages so that you do something good on your vacation). If an art piece can’t solve all those issues in one swing, it doesn't mean that it is overshadowed, it means that the problems are smothered by complexities that are extremely difficult to penetrate.

Does focusing on something that happened 100 years ago ignore the ways that colonialism and racism still effect the world today?

Knowing more about history does not suggest that one ignores the world we live in today. We are not trying to change history or create guilt around history; we are trying to make connections between a forgotten past and an ignored contemporary reality.

The "zoo" will remain open until August. Watch video of the original Kongolandsbyen below:

Kongolandsbyen Oslo 1914 from Lars Cuzner on Vimeo.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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