A bust of a young African boy simply titled “Pygmy”, his name Ota Benga, a Mbuti Pygmy. He was brought from the rainforest in Congo, caged and exhibited in the monkey house in New York’s Bronx Zoo, in 1906. He was forced to bare his sharpened teeth to the crowd gawping at him. A sign above his cage read: “The Missing Link”.
A print illustrating a race study by the French naturalist, Julien-Joseph Virey, published in 1824. The head of an African man is categorised as the “missing link” between that of a “superior” European man and an orangutang. Virey’s evolutionary doctrine dehumanised Africans and other non-Europeans by linking them to lower forms of life.
These are just some of the disturbing images at the Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage exhibition taking place at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
Human zoos, a largely repressed symbol of European colonialism, ranged from freak displays and ethnographic shows to museum and colonial exhibitions in which entire native villages were recreated to allow Europeans a glimpse of “primitive” life. The ghoulish, pseudo science and colonial expansion, to which they are intrinsically connected, contributed to the death and oppression of millions of non-white people through slavery and conquest and shaped racial attitudes that still linger today.
Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, which will run until 3 June 2012, is the first exhibition to explore the demeaning European and American mass entertainment phenomenon in its entirety. The idea for it came from Lilian Thuram, a Guadeloupe-born, former French footballer turned anti-racist advocate, who himself suffered racism on and off the pitch.
Set out as a stage show, the exhibition uses a spectacular and shocking collection of multi-media images, artefacts and gruesome scientific paraphernalia to trace the phenomenon’s long and shameful history – from the first modern human zoos in Renaissance Europe, to their heyday in the late 19th century at the peak of European colonialism, and long-overdue demise in 1958. The 600 or so items on show, including previously unseen paintings, sculptures, posters, postcards, archive film and photographs, give an insight into the astonishing scale and success of human zoos.
People from virtually all so-called “inferior,” non-white races with rich and diverse cultures, including Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Inuits, Hindus and Native Americans were exhibited in human zoos. Powerful emerging mass communication tools of the day, including photography and film, were heavily used to promote them as “savages”. As the exhibition highlights, curiosity, admiration, ignorance, colonial expansion and greed all played a role in the invention of the “savage”.
The first part of the show explores human zoos in Europe from the Renaissance to the early 19th century. The phenomenon began in 1492, when the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus presented the Spanish court with six “Indian” captives from the Americas. The fashion for collecting exotic foreigners rapidly spread among powerful European families.
In Italy, the Medici family, one of the wealthiest in Europe, developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th century, Cardinal Hippolito de’ Medici not only had a collection of exotic animals but also an assortment of ‘barbarians’ including Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans. One wonders what his mixed-race cousin, Alessandro, the first Medici duke of Florence made of his human zoo. Alessandro, who ruled Florence from 1529-37, is believed to have been the illegitimate son of either Clement de’ Medici or Lorenzo de’ Medici and Simonetta da Collavechio, a freed black African slave.
Although she is concerned that the exhibition could reinforce racist stereotypes, its scientific curator, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep believes it is time to bring the controversial phenomenon and its legacy into the open.
“Many visitors are shocked and surprised by the amount of images. For me, it’s important to open a discussion about how the West built stereotypes and created its Otherness and put it on stage for over five centuries. We all have stereotypes. It’s an important debate, especially with the growth of the extreme right in Europe including in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and recent racist shootings of Senegalese men in Italy,” she says.
Key images in the first part of the exhibition include a 1775 painting of Omai (with botanist and leading founder of the African Association, Sir Joseph Banks and naturalist, Dr Daniel Solander) by the Welsh artist, William Parry. The young Tahitian, who was brought to England in 1773 during Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas, was Britain’s first black celebrity.
The first South Sea Islander seen in Britain, he was introduced to the English court in 1774. He was wined and dined in high circles and became a darling of the London scene. He was a popular living curiosity. A play, “Omai”, based on his life, was performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1785. Notably, Omai, who embodied the Age of Enlightenment’s concept of the “noble savage”, is named in the painting, unlike most foreigners exhibited in human zoos from the 19th century onwards. The second part of the show investigates human zoos in the 19th century, when they became a key feature of popular European culture. One of the most unsettling images here is a projected silhouette of Saartjie Baartman, one of human zoos’ most exploited and tragic victims. A working slave endowed with large buttocks and unusually large labia, she was brought to London in 1810 from her native South Africa.
The young Khoi woman, whose real name was Sawtche, was commercially packaged as the “Hottentot Venus”. Her sexualised and caricatured image swept through British and French popular culture. The public’s greed for displays of “savages” and “freaks” meant she was widely exhibited in museums, salons and at fashionable parties in London and Paris between 1810 and 1815.
In Paris, she attracted the attention of the influential French scientist, Georges Cuvier, who fervently promoted the dangerous myth of the racial superiority of whites. When Baartman died in 1915, possibly from syphilis, at 25, Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body and pickled her brain and genitals. They were displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974. Her remains were finally repatriated in 1994.
A metal instrument for measuring racial difference similar to the one Cuvier would have used to categorise Baartman is one of the most disturbing images in this part of the show. “Exotic human exhibits were sometimes treated almost like slaves, as were many poor European workers. Most shockingly of all, they were not permitted to leave their place of exhibition. They could not move around freely, which is what mainly separates them from stage actors,” Jacomijn Snoep adds.
In the third and final part of the exhibition, which uncovers the phenomenon from the 1820s onwards, the story of human zoos continues in ever more shocking and degrading ways. Human zoos were at their most popular and derogatory during the “Scramble for Africa” (1876-1912), when only Liberia and Ethiopia remained unconquered and the rest of the continent was carved up by five European powers including England and France.
An example of the degrading nature of human zoos during this period is a photograph that merely reads “Zulu Mealtime”. Three Africans mimic a meal-eating scene in the photo. The Zulu people were vigorously exhibited as brutal savages. This was especially the case after Zulu warriors killed over 80 British soldiers as well as Louis Napoleon, the exiled heir to the French throne, during the Anglo-Zulu war, in 1879 in a bid to defend their diamond-rich homeland in South Africa’s Kimberly region.
A Zulu troupe was exhibited in an insulting “Kaffir kraal” in the Great Britain Exhibition of 1899. “An unlikely scene was witnessed at Southampton dock on Wednesday morning on the arrival of the Union Liner Goth from South Africa. The vessel had on board the whole of the stock-in-trade of ‘Savage South Africa,’ which is to be produced at Earl’s Court this summer,” reported the Western Mail.
“Human zoos were used as colonial propaganda to justify colonialism by inventing and showing inferior and superior races. If you show exotic people as savages, inferior humans, you persuade the public that colonisation is a good thing,” Jacomijn Snoep says.
Testimony given by a group of Zulus who returned home after they were exhibited in London in the 1850s offers a fascinating insight into their perception of “civilised” Britain: “The people are so numerous that they tread on one another; all day and all night the streets are crowded. If anyone falls down he is trodden upon and dies, there is no rising again for him unless his own strength helps him…When I saw all these people, I thanked you for that England was not joined on to this place, for if it were they would trample you into the earth with their boots….The English noticed us much because we are black, for I noticed they never noticed each other.”
Leading impresarios including the Great Farini (who is snapped in showman mode with a group of San Bushmen in a photograph used for the exhibition’s poster), America’s P. T. Barnum and Germany’s Carl Hagenbeck played a key role in shaping the display of humans and perceptions of the human zoo-going public. The Tierpark Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, named after Hagenbeck, still features sculptures of Africans and Indians, a sign that humans as well as animals, were on display. Between 1800 and 1958, over 35,00 men, women and children were exhibited in human zoos in London, Paris, Hamburg, New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Johannesburg and elsewhere. They attracted over a billion curious spectators and crystallised fears and fantasies of the “other” and aspirations of domination.
The dehumanising display of foreigners was not without its critics. The renaissance French Catholic essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, was shocked when he saw a spectacle of Tupinamba Indians from Brazil in the 1560s. In On Cannibals, he asserts all humans are equal and that “everyone gives a title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.”
Significantly, Ota Benga (“Pygmy”), was released from the Bronx zoo after the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference in New York led a campaign against his exhibition in the monkey house. The group’s threat of legal action combined with the public backlash generated by the press and Benga’s growing agitation, led to the closure of his exhibition in late September, 1906. Benga later committed suicide.
Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, goes a long way in explaining widespread racism, including the monkey chants Thuram and other non-white footballers have endured on the pitch and the misrepresentation of Africa and its people.
“Just think about TV documentaries and news reports on Africa, where very often a white person explains about their lives as if Africans can’t speak for themselves. There is still an exotic view of Africa, including how the Western media sometimes reports wars there. Although it’s getting better, there is still a lot of misunderstanding,” Jacomijn Snoep says.