A “human zoo” art project tied to Norway’s bicentennial celebrations has enjoyed international publicity because of the controversy it’s stirred. It opened on Thursday to even more conflict, after Belgium’s ambassador to Norway demanded that the artists behind it stop waving his country’s flag at its entrance.
The outdoor project set up in Oslo’s sprawling Frogner Park recreates a popular attraction at Norway’s massive Centennial Exhibition in 1914. In addition to using the exhibition to promote Norway as a newly independent nation at the time, it also displayed an allegedly typical village in Congo, called Kongolandsbyen. It was inhabited by around 80 people (who actually came from Senegal, not Congo) who made a living by allowing themselves to be put display at fairs and exhibitions all over Europe at the time.
Norway’s centennial exhibition 100 years ago attracted 1.4 million visitors at a time when the country only had 2 million residents. Artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi, who came to Norway as a refugee from Sudan, and Lars Cuzner from Sweden have noted that the 1914 “human zoo” was the most popular attraction at the exhibition , but has “for one reason or another been wiped out of the nation’s collective memory.” That’s why they wanted to recreate it, they said.
“We are rebuilding the village in order to address issues around historical amnesia, misrepresentations, the evolution of racism and the architecture behind the nation-building process,” they claimed at the opening.
Their efforts to duplicate the village, and populate it for the duration of their exhibit’s run through August 31, have generated widespread online outcry from critics who believe the artists are being racist themselves. Not even the artists were sure on Thursday who would actually move into the village, which was still quiet during the day on Thursday but attracted a crowd at its official opening.
It also attracted a new dispute, for flying both the Norwegian and Belgian flags at its entrance. The Belgian flag is an apparent reference to Congo’s former status as an oppressed Belgian colony, and Belgium’s ambassador to Norway was not pleased. Bo Krister Wallstrøm, of the state art agency KORO that funded the Kongolandsbyen art project, confirmed to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the ambassador visited the project on Thursday and asked the artists to remove the Belgian flags.
They have refused to do so, unless they’re “forced” to by either the police or foreign ministry.
“This is a matter between the embassy and the artists,” Wallstrøm told NRK. “We have nothing to do with the content of the art itself, but we note that there is a certain amount of artistic freedom in Norway.”
Meanwhile, one Norwegian woman named Nanna Melland turned up at the village Thursday afternoon and told NRK she was among those volunteering to live in the village and thus be on display for the next several weeks. She was concerned, though, as she inspected the thatched huts and lean-tos that will be her new home.
“I thought this sounded like an exciting project, and brave for the artists to do, and I think it will be a challenge for me, to sit on display,” Melland told NRK. She was highly uncertain about the practical aspects of living in the “spartan” huts, worrying it would be cold, wet and uncomfortable.
“I don’t know if I’ll manage to stay here when it rains,” she said. “And where will I cook my food? Where will I get water and where will I go to the toilet? It’s extremely primitive here.”
She looked forward, though, to the philosophical aspects. “The fact that people went to exhibitions to peer at ‘Negroes from Africa’ wasn’t meant to be evil,” she said. “And today, to wander around and gaze at how other people live, that’s part of the Norwegian identity.”