Norway’s ‘human zoo’ challenges country’s image on racism

The flag of Norway is pictured.  Credit: Michael Hanisch/Flickr
The flag of Norway is pictured.
Credit: Michael Hanisch/Flickr

Displaying 80 people in a human zoo in Oslo’s most elegant park, two artists hope their “Congo Village” display will help erase what they say is Norwegians’ collective amnesia about racism.

Re-enacting a similar display from 1914, Lars Cuznor and Mohamed Ali Fadlabi say Norway, one of the richest nations in the world, with a reputation for tolerance, has only suppressed its intolerance, especially around the time of Saturday’s national day.

The Congo Village – which 100 years ago displayed African tribes, attracting 1.4 million visitors over four months – will this time exhibit volunteers taking turns living on show in makeshift huts, resembling a traditional sub-Saharan village.

“Norwegians have been propagating this self-image of a post-racial society and it’s been internalized that it’s a good, tolerant society,” Swedish-Canadian Cuznor told Reuters on Friday. “It’s great branding and it’s self perpetuating but it’s a false image.”

The government-funded display opened just days before Norway celebrates the 200th anniversary of its constitution on Saturday, a day marked by parades all over the country with most people dressed in traditional costumes and waving flags.

“May 17 is the day you feel most foreign and it’s also when racism comes to the surface with debates about whether people have the right to wear their own costumes or display non Norwegian flags,” Sudan-born Fadlabi said.

“Norwegians felt superior in 1914 and they still do through their self image of goodness.”

Public Art Norway, the government agency that put up part of the funding, said the display highlighted questions concerning racism and cultural dominance.

“The rebuilding can be regarded as a monument to the collective loss of memory of a shameful part of our history and a platform for discussion of this historical event, contrasting with Norway today,” it said.

The display, costing 1.4 million crowns ($240,000), has touched off a fierce online debate about whether Norway really is as racist as the artists suggest.

Cuznor says even their exhibition permits hint at the country’s intolerance because they cannot stay overnight, so they do not attract the homeless or Roma people, he said.

With per capita GDP around $100,000, Norway is among the most affluent nations and spends about $5 billion of its oil income on foreign aid.

It was also among the first to allow gay people to marry and most polls show that three-quarters of the population support immigration and think newcomers are a positive for Norway.

Its image for tolerance was tested in 2011 when an anti-immigration gunman killed 77 people, mostly teenagers in a summer camp, in a tirade against Muslim immigrants.



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