Remembering the Racist History of ‘Human Zoos’

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Tervuren, Belgium – The Roman Catholic Church in the center of Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels, is not a tourist place. It is a heavily renovated building with exceptional stained glass windows and a small bell tower. However, outside its walls are seven stone tombs of historical interest to Belgium as it strives to come to terms with the horrors of its colonial past.

The graves contain the remains of six Congolese men and one woman who were displayed as zoo animals in a nearby park in Tervuren during the rainy summer of 1897 and who died of influenza and pneumonia after being forced to spend their days outside. They were among 267 men, women and children taken to Tervuren to take part in a colonial exhibition ordered by Belgian King Leopold II.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the tragedy at Tervuren, the museum built in the same park by King Leopold – recently renamed the Museum of Africa – is putting on a show called “Human Zoo: The Age of Colonial Exhibitions,” running through March 6. It is a meticulously documented survey of the many human fairs that took place around the world from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century.

These attractions, estimated by the museum’s curators to have been visited by 1.5 billion people worldwide, ranged from small circus shows and “weird shows” to giant world fairs held in major capitals. They perpetuated theories of white supremacy and racist beliefs that persist to this day.

Spectacles like the 1897 Exposition were often organized by entrepreneurs who took teams of underpaid or underpaid people around the world: Congolese people were shown in the United States, for example, and Native Americans were shown in Brussels . Martin Kutner, one of the three curators of “Human Zoo” on a recent tour of the exhibition, said the individuals involved were displayed behind fences and barriers, sometimes “half-naked, wearing animal skins, and performing degrading activities”.

He added that the fanaticism behind the performances continues to this day. On the morning of the interview, Cotner noted, Belgian newspaper De Standaard published a front-page story about a recent football match in which Vincent Kompany, the black coach of one of the teams, was mocked and abused with racist slurs. .

Guido Gryseels, director general of the Museum of Africa, has admitted that his foundation has contributed over decades to the promotion of racism. He said the permanent collections were left intact from 1956 into the early 2000s, spreading lies about Africans. He remembered visiting the museum at the age of four or five and leaving a negative impression on Africa. “I was afraid of him,” he said. “I remembered, in particular, the savage Africans with their spears,” he added. “They were there to kill me.”

If you give “successive generations” the impression “Africans are savages, that they run naked, that they are not civilized,” Gryseels said, “you should not be surprised that these generations have problems in dealing with a multicultural society.” .

Since taking office in 2001, Gryseels has made multiple presentations critical of Belgian colonialism, participated in refund talks with African countries and hired staff of African descent. He said the “Human Zoo” exhibition was an opportunity to “look back at our past, look it right in our eyes, come to terms with it, and realize that we as an institution, as a museum, have contributed to the problems.”

The exhibition opens with a long text on the wall that lists the dates of the major exhibitions of men, women and children held in places such as Dresden, Germany; Lyon, France; Naples, Italy; and Prague – and further, in Philadelphia; San Francisco; Kyoto, Japan; and Sydney, Australia. Archive photos offer demeaning visions of human beings to be displayed. In one, from a “black village” in 20th century France, a man weaver squatted at a loom while a crowd of men in top hats stared at him from behind a parapet.

There are many other photographs in the exhibition, as well as postcards and posters depicting half-naked figures – sometimes called “savages” – and marketing like an earthenware bottle from an 1897 exhibition depicting a Congolese woman with a fruit basket on her head and a child in a sack.

Belgium has been particularly active in organizing degrading human spectacles. King Leopold – who also ruled what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo for most of his reign, which lasted from 1865 to 1909 – enslaved the Congolese population, forcing the people there to produce rubber for his own gain, a process that involved hundreds. Thousands, if not millions, were killed and maimed.

For Leopold, the fairs were a propaganda tool to convince the Belgians of the benefits of colonialism and to raise money for his ambitious plans to modernize his kingdom. Three years before the Tervuren tragedy, the king held a “world fair” in the Belgian city of Antwerp and attracted 144 Congolese to the residents of a show village made up of 11 huts and a grotto. Photographs show them posing outside thatched dwellings wearing aprons or animal skins, holding spears or ceremonial paraphernalia. Seven of them died in Belgium.

One of the curators, Pascal Blanchard, who held a similar exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, said that nineteenth-century scholars, and the theories of racial difference that they developed and promoted, were among the driving forces behind these human performances. in 2011.

The Tervuren Gallery devotes a section to “scientific” studies, now long discredited, including color charts showing different skin tones, notebooks filled with cranial measurements (a perceived measure of racial difference) and a “craniogram” used to measure skulls.

Blanchard said it was “unbelievable” in the 1980s to have an exhibition dealing with the forced display of humans, because “people didn’t think it was a major historical topic.” He added that it took two decades of research to compile enough documents to make the bids possible.

Blanchard said that audiences in the West today are eager to understand the roots of racism. “If you want to deconstruct racism, and don’t look at ‘human zoos’, you’re not deconstructing anything,” he added.

The exhibition ends with two sections linking the past with the present: a contemporary art installation by Burundian-born photographer Teddy Mazina, depicting Africans measuring Europeans in a kind of role reversal; and a large display on the wall composed of sentences representing the subtle assaults suffered by the museum’s staff of African descent – illustrations of everyday racism. One says, “I don’t see colours.” “Africa has no civilization” is another thing.

credit…Via the Royal Museum of Central Africa

Marie-Ren Leumfa, an employee of the Museum of Africa whose family came to Belgium from Rwanda, helped compile the quotes. She said that images of humans presented as animals were the origin of many current stereotypes. “As black women, we compare ourselves to hyenas, which are described as savages in bed,” she said. “There is an overabundance of sex in our bodies.”

Nanette Snoeb, who organized the Quai Branley Museum exhibition with Blanchard and now leads the Rautenstrach-Guest Museum in Cologne, Germany, said initial colonial imagery and “modern forms of ‘human zoos’ are prevalent to this day.” She noted that in advertisements, films and theatrical performances People of color are sometimes portrayed as curiosities.

“This idea of ​​colonialism is still going on,” she said, and representations are inherited from the colonial era. “People still love the weird.”

She added that such perceptions need to be dispelled. “That’s why exposure in tervuren is important.”

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