[Trigger Warning]. Restaging Human Zoos and The Problem With Performance Art.

Performance Art, Human Zoos Norway

I can’t remember when I first learned about human zoos. This definitely wasn’t something we went over in 9th grade world history. My jaw remained in a pretty locked ground down position as I poured over images and writing about these horrid things. History is ugly, I know that all too well. I don’t think the ugliness should be buried, but I also don’t think the ugliness should be entertainment.

Ugandan artist Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Canadian-Swedish artist Lars Cuzner were planning to stage a Human Zoo in the wake of the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution. The news caused me the sort of unease that I feel when discussing movies centered on the brutality of slavery or that feature graphic rape scenes. Slavery and rape are the ugliness of the human condition at it’s core. We all know both occur, but are rarely confronted with the brutality of either. A movie can teach, but movies are first and foremost entertainment. Art, while holding an elevated place in society is at it’s most base simply a distraction from the viewer’s mundane condition and routine.

This installation is seeking to make a bold declaration about a foul aspect of Norway’s history. But like the infamous Swedish performance piece on Female Genital Mutilation, I have a feeling the piece will be met with nervous laughter from attendees and outrage from outsiders. In the end, the very people the art sought to advocate for will be left with the most scars, while the voyeurs the art sought to educate leave unscathed. Even if we aren’t laughing at pain, we might be watching for the wrong reasons do to inborn biases and blinders. Humans create art from bias and we consume art with bias as well, often consuming the artist or the medium, rather than the message. The problem with performance art is everybody’s problem.

Further reading.

Exhibiting Africans like animals in Norway’s Human Zoo

Artists Bring Back The Human Zoo To Teach A Lesson In History