Asim Rafiqui

The Norwegian artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner are recreating, as part of a nationwide commemoration of 200 years of the Norwegian Constitution, a "human zoo" as a way of provoking an engagement with Norway’s colonial past. However, in their effort to engage with a brutal and violent colonial history and stimulate discussion about the prejudice, profiteering and power that allowed it to happen, the artists fail to understand how the very act of creating this "art" and inviting people to "volunteer" to be the "animals" in the "zoo" is in itself an act of privilege, power and a manifestation of the social inequalities and economic imbalances that taint our modern world.

There is, of course, the tastelessness of it all - imagine inviting Jews to participate in a modern day reenactment of the gas chambers organized by a couple of German artists - but equally egregious is the obfuscatory nature of the endeavor. The entire reenactment, one that can today be performed in a benign and "educational" manner, presumes that issues of racism, bigotry, economic inequality, political power and relationships of dependency and exploitation when it comes to Africa and Africans no longer exist or matter. 

Ostensibly, it may appear to be no different from a theatre or film performance. The people participating are willing subjects who probably believe that this may actually offer an historical context to a shameful and disgusting past. The organizers of the project have put out a call for volunteers to be the "animals." Clearly there will also be non-whites in the audience that come to gawk at them. So what historical context is actually being created? Hasn't this entire performance already crumbled when the actual historical imbalance of power, might, greed and desire - qualities that made racial science and its associated acts of slavery the incredibly profitable and incredibly brutal enterprise that it was - is no longer present? Isn't this, then, simply gratuitous? In what way does it help us experience what it means to simply kidnap millions of people and sell them to others for our benefit? What is the historical context? Or is it merely titillation at being able to "re-occupy" those spaces of European superiority, Black/African barbarism and "monkey-like" behavior yet again? Is it cathartic, or simply voyeuristic? One can also ask how the questioning of the benefits and privileges of slavery that European nations continue to benefit from will be challenged? What stark revelations about the existing and growing atmosphere of racism and bigotry across Europe will be revealed? Probably none.

The fundamental problem with such "performances" is not just that they fail to perform anything meaningful, but that they more egregiously fail to point out that we are not done with the past. They simplify the deep social, economic and political links that had existed, and that continue to benefit societies in Europe today. Furthermore, like Disney's proposal to build a slave-plantation theme park in Florida - one that was much criticized - it gives the spectators a false sense of comfort that what they are dealing with is the past, something that was once, something that has nothing to do with what remains today. Racism, exploitation of African economies, the bigotry and dehumanization that underpin international development and aid - the Norwegians are the leaders in such 'good' works - continue to contort lives, economies and society in Africa.

All such performances attempt to play on a false idea that "shame" is the main response to the exploitative past, and to the brutal present. This is a shallow view, and one that fails to properly acknowledge how so much of the wealth of Europe today is intentionally protected and extended because of all that was violently gained before. Is this a conversation spectators are seriously willing to have? Probably not. Thus, there is no historical context, but rather a short-form accusation that seeks to provoke feelings of shame in its audience. But shame is not a sustainable response if we are serious about understanding history, nor one that provokes action against its legacies.

Another iteration of the same problematic approach is the "feel good" story predicated, ultimately, on inequity. For example, the recent one about "Somalis on ice" during the corporate production of something known as the Olympics. Yet another story of black/brown people valiantly behaving according to an imagined idea of "us." Lets be honest: such stories also carry within them the racist prejudice which believes that black/brown people are generally too backward to indulge in what are clearly rich people's activities. We are surprised and amused at their temerity, and their desire to belong to our world. Much of our bigoted amusement comes from the way these stories are produced and presented, because they exploit the element of shock and surprise at their efforts.

I am reminded of something that Michael-Rolph Trouillot said in Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History when criticizing the Disney proposal to build a slavery theme plantation exhibit. To be sure, there was popular disapproval of the idea. William Styron - whose family were slave owners - vehemently opposed the idea. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Styron argued: “I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery...To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.” (Op-ed, Aug 4, 1994)

But it took Trouillot to touch on something that was not said even by those who were aghast and opposed to the idea - that the danger in a Disney-made exhibit of a slave plantation, no matter how historically accurate, morally precise, or emotionally powerful, did not produce any relation to the Past, but perpetuated instead the dishonesty of that relationship as it would happen in the Present. That is, viewers would walk away with the wrong response to the exhibit - namely that issues of racism are in the past, and that today all that was over. An exhibit eliciting such a response is simply, and nothing short of, immoral.

This is a powerful critique, and one that applies here in the case of Norway's new exhibit. No matter how well-intentioned, viewers are encouraged to walk away convinced that all is well in Europe, that the Africans are happy and belong, and that our society lives above racism and bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Image via The Society Pages

Asim Rafiqui is an independent photographer focusing on photography in the aftermath of conflict. He has worked in places like Haiti, Israel, and the Palestinian Occupied Territories.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic (France), Stern (Germany), and Time (US and Asia). He also writes a blog called The Spinning Head.