"Human Zoo" Exhibition in Belgium Displays Inherent Racism in White Settler Colonialism
"Human Zoo: The age of colonial exhibitions" displays how colonialism exploited and oppressed Black people in "zoos".
"Human zoos" have been an imperialist business from the 16th century through the 20th century, exploiting 1.5 billion black people throughout. Based on the painful narrative whose premises, which are based on stereotypes, live on till this day, organizers in Brussels, Belgium, curated a museum by the name "Human Zoo: The age of colonial exhibitions."
Under the colonial ruling of its King Leopold II, Belgium has an infamous history of caging up black people both in Congo and their home country. What is exceptionally interesting is that the Africa Museum is built exactly where Leopold constructed the "Congolese villages" on the royal ground, where black folks were oppressed.
The first "human zoo" in Belgium was established in 1885 near Antwerp, and had 12 Africans, growing 20 times bigger after 12 years. The "zoo" business was booming.
At one time when Leopold II had "acquired" Congo as his private poverty, the ruler dragged 267 men and women to be "displayed" in Brussels' World Fair. Seven of them died from the cold. This is just one of many instances where black Congolese were enslaved. For this episode, 500 items and documents were exhibited showing how the victims suffered under colonial powers.
The museum projects a live see-for-yourself scenery that exhibits a background for racial stereotypes pushed by colonial powers which still live on till this day. The old ethnographic displays were to show how colonialist structures manifested "othering", and were based solely on racial discrimination and violence, reinforcing "the superiority of the whites," as the organizers put it.
Gigantism, dwarfism, and women with beards among others were some of the "specimens" on display for the Belgian circuses that projected the inherent ableism of colonialism. The owner of the circus goes by the name P.T. Barnum, who was an American businessman and politician.
Exoticism, also an archetype of colonialism, was used to complement the "othering" aura of the zoos, where "exotic" and "nature-like" decoratives were made to engulf the setting.
The human zoos were most popular in the 1880s, decreasing in popularity in the mid 20th century when cinema and motion picture were introduced to the public.
Today's racism is not propelled from vacuum, but rather is an aftermath of a history through which "cannibal, inferior, dirty, lazy" were ascribed to an entire race.
One of the curators, Maarten Couttenier, told AFP "the same message was repeated thousands of times, and the public ended up truly thinking that the African was a cannibal, inferior, dirty, lazy," continuing, "And these stereotypes still exist today -- proof that the colonial propaganda worked."
The final part of the exhibition displays the "microaggressions" embedded in everyday language; phrases written in big letters were hung on a white wall: "I love black people!" -- "Oh, you did better than I expected" -- "The apartment's already rented."
According to one of the curators of the exhibition, the fact that microaggressions slip through language, projecting onto people of color, shows that even 60 years after the zoos had closed, racism still lurks in minds.
The exhibition will be on display till March 2022.