Paris’s controversial human exhibition

Half-naked Africans made to gnaw at bones and presented as “cannibals” in a mock tribal village in northern France, Native American children displayed at fairgrounds, families from Asia and the South Pacific behind railings in European zoos and “troops” of dancing Zulus on a London stage.

Paris’s most talked-about exhibition of the season opened this week with a sense of shock and soul-searching at the exhibiting of people from colonies of the European powers in human zoos, circuses, and “exotic” stage-shows, which flourished until as late as 1958.

Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, curated by star French footballer turned anti-racism campaigner Lilian Thuram, traces the history of a practice that started when Christopher Columbus displayed six “Indians” at the Spanish royal court in 1492 and went on to become a mass entertainment phenomenon in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with more than a billion spectators turning out to see “ethnics” and “savages” in zoos, circuses, mock villages and freak shows from London to St Louis, and Barcelona to Tokyo.

The exhibition, at Paris’s Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac’s museum dedicated to once-colonised cultures — is the first to look at the international phenomenon as a whole. It brings together hundreds of bizarre and shocking artefacts, ranging from posters for “Male and Female Australian Cannibals” in London, which was the world capital of “savage” stage shows, to documentation for mock villages of “Arabs” and “Sengalese”.

Thuram said the exhibition explained the background of racist ideas and “fear of the other”, which persisted today.

“You have to have the courage to say that each of us has prejudices, and these prejudices have a history,” he said.

In 1906, a Congolese man, Ota Benga, was exhibited in a cage at the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo, in New York, causing a controversy before he was put in an orphanage for “coloureds” and eventually fostered. Benga later shot himself. A hairy woman from Laos, known as “Krao”, was exhibited at the end of the 19th century as “the missing link” between man and orangutan.

The exhibition traces the lives of up to 35 000 “natives” put on show in mock tribal scenes and taken to villages or zoos.

In 1931 the great grandparents of Thuram’s French World Cup winning teammate, Christian Karembeu, came to Paris from New Caledonia. They considered themselves ambassadors, but they were displayed in a cage at the Jardin d’Acclimation in Paris. —

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