Human zoo is false consciousness

2014-09-04 06:45

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The art world can, at times, be fatuous and vapid. I was reminded of this by artist Brett Bailey’s latest performance piece, which he says explores the muted racist histories of European powers.

The idea for the piece, titled The Exhibit Series (A, B, C & D), came after he read about “human zoos” – the living-human exhibitions of 19th-century Europe.

The living-human exhibition we’re most familiar with is that which featured Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in Britain and France. It was cruel and dehumanising.

Europeans paid to ogle her seminaked body and consume further helpings of a racist ideology which claimed what set her (and other Africans) apart from Europeans was that she was “primitive” and therefore inferior.

When she died, she was dissected and some of her body parts, which scientific racism of the day said were “ape-like”, were on display at a museum in Paris until 1974.

There were others before Baartman and many after her. The ideology spurred European countries to formalise their claims to most of the African continent, and other parts of the world, believing themselves to be a civilising force. In reality, they were anything but.

Artist Brett Bailey has hired black actors as exhibits in his ‘human installations’ to explore the racist histories of various European powers. Picture:
Anke Schuttler

Bailey believes Europeans have forgotten the systemic prejudice, exploitation and brutality of this history, so he’s staging a human zoo of his own to remind them.

Supported by our arts and culture department, Exhibit B from the series will show in London this month, having shown in other European cities after a previous iteration was unveiled at the National Arts Festival in 2012.

It is a museum-style exhibit that takes visitors through a series of installations recounting the history of human zoos. It connects the zoos to modern-day practices such as how African refugees are treated in Europe.

There’s one installation about the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, a prelude to the holocaust perpetrated by Germany in Namibia. There, too, human parts were taken to Europe for experimentation and display to reinforce the idea that Africans were inferior.

There’s also an installation harking back to Belgium’s rubber plantations in the Congo where black men, women and children were forced to labour. Often, those who didn’t meet their rubber collection quota had a hand chopped off to scare others into working harder.

And of course, the exhibit also features installations of Baartman and apartheid history.

It is undoubtedly well researched and skilfully delivered. But apparently what makes this art is that Bailey hires black actors as exhibits in the installations, like how Hendrik Cezar “employed” Baartman in his human zoo.

The performers do not move or speak. They only maintain eye contact with the audience.

Bailey’s use of living people is inexplicable, other than for its shock value. He relies on the notion that the anachronism of seeing living Africans dehumanised in this way in the present day will shake Europeans from their stupor about their racist history.

This is misguided. Human zoos, and indeed institutionalised racism, have always been cognitively jarring to those Europeans willing to interrogate the racist ideology into which they were socialised, even in 19th-century Europe.

The fact that exhibiting Baartman was challenged in a London court by British abolitionists is evidence of this.

As it was then, those unwilling to interrogate the racist ideologies that built Europe and brought misery to other parts of the world will not be moved by experiencing a human zoo or any of the other information on display in Bailey’s exhibition.

The reality of the situation is that Europe’s racist history isn’t muted or forgotten. Europeans and their diaspora have not created a collective consciousness with the words and ideas to deconstruct the history, which is freely available.

It’s also misguided because indigenous people here and elsewhere daily live the disorder wrought by European imperialism and colonialism.

Living under these experiences has forced us to forge resistance ideologies and reject the constructs into which Europeans have tried to force us.

Seeing a recreation of the racist techniques by which we were dehumanised does little for our cause.

This is why black people have protested against Bailey’s human zoo in many of the cities it’s been displayed.

At present, there is a petition calling for the exhibition’s London showing to be cancelled. If Bailey has even an inkling of consciousness, he will heed this call.

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