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‘Human Zoos” the Invention of the Savage’

Exhibition poster Exhibition poster
“The strange, the savage and the monster have always been the subject of intense curiosity. The ‘other’ puzzles, sparks interrogation and amazement and helps to conceptualise and situate oneself. Often originating from some distant land, it is a concept that crystallises the fears and fantasies of a nation as well as its aspirations of domination. If all nations have used the concept of alterity to construct their identity, the West remains unique in the sheer scale of its living-human shows… Racial theories, colonialism and the belief in Western superiority acquire a great deal of legitimacy through these exhibitions. Exotic populations and freaks of nature become actors in this ‘theatre of the world’, displayed side by side as if belonging to the same abnormal universe and separated from the spectators by a real or imaginary barrier.”

A new exhibition at the Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris explores the history of “human zoos” that put “freaks” and exotic human “specimens” on display. The story of the “”human zoos” and the circus, theatre or cabaret performances, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages and international or colonial fairs at which these people were exhibited is told through material drawn from a number of archival collections. The exhibition includes a rich array of paintings and sculptures, dioramas, photographs, film, posters, postcards, programmes and other ephemera demonstrating ways in which these types of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, fashioned the Western perspective – and perceptions of the “other”. As the curators note, “This exhibition explores the sometimes fine lines between exotic individuals and freaks, science and voyeurism, exhibitionism and spectacle. It also questions visitors on their own contemporary biases which still remain today.”The display is inspired and curated by the Caribbean-born former international footballer Liliane Thurman, who heads his own anti-racism foundation aims.In the foreword to the publication of the same name, Thurman says that:

“Knowledge of the human zoos helped me to understand just that little bit better why certain racialist ideas continue to exist in societies like ours… Are we not capable of enjoying self-esteem without denigrating the Other? The encounter with alterity may be sexual, cultural or religious, but it can also concern our partner, sister, brother, friend, son or daughter and should be a process of permanent negotiation.”

Pascal Blanchard, scientific curator of the exhibition, in his foreword, comments that:

“To exhibit men and women, to place a distance between them and visitors, to present them as different and inferior, was to construct a kind of divide between the normal and the abnormal, to invent a break between two distinct forms of humanity. This was a major process in contemporary history that has been analysed over the last two decades in several seminal works on human zoos. This history has left us thousands of photographs, commercial postcards, official and amateur films, promotional posters, paintings, prints, newspaper drawings and articles, each one more sensational than the last. And, as we survey and decode them, we can measure the ways and the relatively short period in which the idea of domination became general and permeated the world. Finally, thanks to these images we can picture how public opinion was persuaded, deceived and manipulated by these stagings of the savage put on from Tokyo to Hamburg, from Chicago to London, from Paris to Barcelona, from St. Louis to Brussels and from Basel to Johannesburg.”

Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, also a scientific curator of the exhibition, explains the exhibition’s intention to give a voice – and an identity - to the many men, women and children used as extras, circus freaks, actors and dancers by telling their forgotten stories:

“It might be thought that these images show only anonymous individuals. But no, many of these ‘exhibits’ have been identified; their names are known, as are the details of their highly varied and incredible destinies. Now that the cloak of anonymity has been lifted thanks to the research carried out over the last twenty years – notably by many of the contributors to this catalogue – it is at last possible to write the history of these exhibitions mounted on every continent. By giving them a name, a life and a history, we free these people from the shackles in which they were once held, restoring dignity to individuals who suddenly found themselves thrust on stage in front of a curious crowd simply because they were considered different. Different because they were not the same colour or size; different because they came from faraway lands.”

The exhibition path
In a scenography inspired by the world of theatre, the exhibition explores the staging of so-called “exotics” or “freaks” as well as the reactions to these shows.

Left:Lavinia Fontana, Left:Lavinia Fontana, "Portrait of Antionetta Gonsalvus", Italy, oil on canvas, 1585. Right: Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Omai", Great Britain, oil on canvas
Act 1 - Discovering the other: report, collect features the 15th- and 18th-century arrival of exotic people in Europe, and their consideration as “strange foreigners”, categorised in four archetypes throughout the exhibition: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.

Left: Left: "Krao, the Missing Link", Great Britain, flyer, 1887. Right: Henry Picard, "La Venus Hottentote" (The Hottentot Venus), Jardin Zoologique d'Acclimatation de Paris, cover of musical score, 1888
Act 2 - Freaks & exotics: observe, classify, categorise focuses on the emergence of ethnic shows in the 19th century. Here the difference between the deformed and the foreign: physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities become blurred – as exemplified by the exhibition of Saartje Baartman.

Left: Adolph Friedlander, Left: Adolph Friedlander, "The Four Flying Chinese's of the Royal Troupe Lijen-Chaisan,"Hamburg, poster, 1907.Right: Jules Cheret, "Folies-Bergere. Les Zoulous", (Folies-Bergeres. The Zulus), Paris, lithographic poster, 1878
Act 3 - The spectacle of difference: recruit, exhibit, share traces the professionalisation of the activity, and the morphing of exotic performance into mass entertainment. Visitors are introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true genre professionals: Aboriginals, “lip-plate women”, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers or oriental belly dancers, etc.
Left: Camis, Left: Camis, "le continent noir au Parc de Plaissance de geneve. Villages Negres, 200 Indigenes" (the Dark Continent at the Parc de Plaissance in Geneva, Negor Villages, 200 Natives), Exposition Nationale Suisse, Geneva, poster (designed in Paris), 1896. Left: "Guillermo Antonio Farini with his Earthmen", London studio photograph (for the exhibition of Earthmen at the Royal Aquarium), 1884
Act 4 – Staging: exhibit, measure, profile shows how reconstructed ethnic villages, zoos, colonial and international fairs, science and spectacle merge in multiple places. Exotic peoples and physical strangeness are brought together on stage as if they both equally represented the realm of abnormality. While this trend primarily hits Europe, it also reaches America, Japan and the colonies themselves (Australia, India and Indochina), and attracts hundreds of millions of visitors.

The exhibition ends with a thought-provoking audiovisual installation featuring groups who are stigmatised today, asking individuals whether they view themselves as “other”.

A discomforting archive
The exhibition is at once visually exhilarating, absorbing and profoundly moving. Men, women and children classified as “freaks” because they suffered some form of deformity or “exotic” because they came from far-off lands, gaze steadily at the viewer from the photographs, drawings and paintings that line the wall, or, sometimes almost shamefacedly from the audiovisual projections. Some individuals linger uncomfortably in my mind: the shy “Krao” a small girl described as the “missing link”; the stoic and hirsute Antionetta Gonsalvus; Farini’s sombre-faced “Earthmen” and; the be-feathered “Zoulous” prancing on stage at the Folies Bergere. I wondered what became of them all once they were no longer valued for their curiosity value. While the exhibition succeeds in bringing home the humanity of the subjects, I wondered what they themselves would have said about their experiences: did they consider themselves to be ‘victims’ of racial explotiation, entertainers or ambassadors - but maybe these questions were simply never asked. The silence was disconcerting, leaving me feeling a little uncomfortable - a voyeur from another time and place.

I left the exhibition intrigued by the concepts, excited by the richness of material on display, and angry. Angry because my ancestors may have been complicit in these demeaning practices, angry because the ancestors of my friends and colleagues – and those I rub shoulders with in the everyday world – may have been paraded around as unwilling subjects of the “human zoos”.

I left with a fresh appreciation for the power of the archive as a place of hurt and healing; a resource on which we can draw to make sense of the past and the present and imagine a more just future. But, it is something of a “Pandora’s Box”, isn’t; it? 

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication of the same name ‘Human Zoos: the Invention of the Savage’ devised and edited by Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boetsch and Nanette Jacomijn Snoep and presented by Lilian Thuram, which is available in English and French.

For further information see the website of the Musée du Quai Branly


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  • Great idea, I am glad to hear that somewhere still exist this spirit. Very good article, thanks

    By Hochzeit Basel on 13/12/2012
  • It is at last possible to write the history of these exhibitions mounted on every continent. By giving them a name, a life and a history.

    By Jobs für Handwerker on 13/12/2012