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Artists plan to revisit Oslo’s ‘human zoo’ of Africans, this time with volunteer exhibits

But is it just a racist stunt?

In 1914, Norway celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its constitution by establishing a human zoo in which a Congolese village was recreated, complete with Africans in traditional dress for paying customers to gawp at.

Such was the exhibition’s success that two-thirds of the country’s population visited the site. “Exceedingly funny,” wrote Norway’s leading newspaper, Aftenposten. “It’s wonderful we are white,” concluded the magazine Urd.

Now, to mark the constitution’s 200-year anniversary next month, two artists are planning to re-stage the event. Despite insisting the exhibit – this time featuring volunteers – is being installed to force Norwegians to face their country’s illiberal past, the news has been met with horror by anti-racism groups.

“This is taking it too far,” said Rune Berglund, head of Norway’s Anti-Racism Centre. “The only people who will like this are those with racist views. This is something children with African ancestry will hear about and will find degrading. I find it difficult to see how this project could be done in a dignified manner.”

The original exhibition, called The Congolese Village, was staged in Frogner Park, Oslo, and opened by the King of Norway. It ran for five months and, as well as a roller coaster and pantomime theatre, showed 80 African men, women and children living in palm-roof cabins, surrounded by indigenous artefacts and going about their daily routine of cooking, eating and making handicrafts.

It was the idea of a London-based Hungarian-born impresario named Benno Singer, and was marketed as a carnival freakshow. It tapped into an enthusiasm in other parts of Europe for human zoos, which were supposed to show off the civilising effect of colonialism. Huge crowds gathered to see a similar exhibition in Belgium, despite some of the 267 Congolese villagers dying during the show’s run and being unceremoniously buried in a common grave.

The artists behind the new project, Mohamed Ali Fadlabi from Sudan and Lars Cuzner from Sweden, say it was the lack of awareness among contemporary Norwegians of the 1914 exhibit that prompted their decision to re-stage it. “Not being from this country, naturally we assumed that this was common knowledge,” they said. “It turns out that almost no one in Norway knew that it had ever happened, even if they had knowledge of human zoos in other countries.”

The artists argue that contemporary Norway believes that it is more tolerant and liberal than other countries. “We couldn’t waste this opportunity to challenge the very specific nation-building project that has influenced the Scandinavian self-image of goodness.”

Their exhibit, which is backed by Public Art Oslo and called the European Attraction Limited, opens on 15 May for four months. All those taking part had to provide written submissions explaining why they wished to participate, and their understanding of the contemporary nature of racism, which are to be collected into a book to be published next year.

Both Fadlabi and Cuzner say they have received threats from both anti-racism organisations and neo-Nazis, but remain committed to the project. “We want to provide an opportunity to correct the way Norway talks about its past and how people have been mistreated,” Mr Cuzner said. “[One hundred years ago] scientific racism like this exhibit was used to portray Norwegians as the superior race. Now it’s the cultural superiority of the present. It’s gone from ethnic superiority to ethical superiority.”

Support has come from elements in the country’s artistic community. Will Bradley, director of the contemporary gallery Kunsthall Oslo, hailed the project as having great “significance”. It points to “historical Norwegian racism,” he said, “and to ask what has changed since – or even to suggest that some of these historical racist attitudes have survived.”

This is not the first time Norway’s tolerant reputation has been challenged. Last November, Warsan Ismail, a Norwegian medical student of Somali origin, began tweeting examples of racism she suffered using the hashtag #norskrasisme (“Norway racism”). It soon became the top trending hashtag in Norway. People who used the hashtag said Norway was too keen to portray itself as “post-racist” or above racism, which led to a refusal to  discuss discrimination.