In the late nineteenth century, ‘human zoos’ began to appear at festivals and events in western Europe: recreating ‘authentic’ African villages populated by people imported from Africa (and sometimes indigenous people from other parts of the world) so that white Europeans could observe and mock their ‘primitive’ nature. These voyeuristic spectacles disguised as ethnographic education attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Norway was a bit behind the times in staging such an exhibit, holding a “Congolese village” exhibition in Oslo in 1914 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Norwegian constitution. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the constitution, and two artists in Norway, Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, plan to restage this exhibition in its entirety as a comment on the changing, or perhaps unchanging, face of racism in Norway. A project several years in the making, an academic conference on the project will take place February 14 and 15 in Oslo. Fadlabi, an interdisciplinary artist who works in painting, performance and text and Cuzner, an artist interested in performance and tensions between thought and action, have collaborated on various projects over the past three years.
When and how did you come up with the idea to restage this 1914 exhibit?
Fadlabi: We found the info about this human zoo [in Oslo] and we thought it was common knowledge, because we’re both not from Norway, and we were really surprised when we started talking to people because nine out of 10 people didn’t know about it, and we just started digging. So we decided, let’s do a re-enactment. Three years ago we came up with the idea and had a press conference where we told people that we were doing the re-enactment.
Lars Cuzner: We also found, even people who had heard about human zoos in other countries, they hadn’t heard about it in their own country. It seemed necessary to re-engage this discussion to find a way we can redefine our understanding of history, because clearly it’s been written in a way that it can disappear.
You mentioned that you’re both not from Norway?
F: No, we’re not – well, I’m Norwegian, but I’m from Sudan. And Lars is Swedish-Canadian. [Fadlabi has lived in Norway for ten years and is a citizen, and Cuzner has lived in Norway for three years.]
Why are you choosing to restage this exhibition?
F: You know, we’ve been asked this many times, because we took a really passive role, we didn’t say so much, but with so many newspapers who wrote about it, people were discussing it and we like to describe ourselves that we’re like national therapists for Norway.
F: You know, they ask a question, we ask another one, just keep pushing back a little bit and just sit and listen. With this discussion [of Norwegian racism], it’s like there are so many mediators, people who are just so well-trained that they will just say nothing wrong, do everything the right way. We’re national therapists.
Okay – so what is the role of a national therapist?
F: Just listen to the nation, motivate it to talk more about its problems, until maybe at some point you reach this sensitive area in the memory of the nation, and then we will maybe hopefully fight over some problems, but we’re not supposed to find a solution. Therapists just have to assist you to help yourself to get out of your problems.
LC: We don’t have any medicine, but we can diagnose. This is kind of what we’re doing, we’re diagnosing the nation.
And what diagnosis have you made thus far?
F: We’re still in this process, so we will reveal this in 2014. We’re still in the middle of these therapy sessions. And this conference is one of them.
LC: Some things are revealing themselves and will be discussed in the conference, and one of the points is that in dealing with history, things are dealt with in a way that you think you’ve dealt with them, but in fact they’re not dealt with, they’re more a part of a denial process but with the impression of having been dealt with. The problem still exists, it just changes shape and becomes unrecognizable. Now that the problem persists but is not necessarily recognizable, we need to find out what it looks like.
So the 1914 Congo exhibit never went away, it’s still there, it’s just in a different form now.
F: We have to look at changes in racism – because racism was based on the fact that we looked different.
LC: We’re talking about what the purpose of this exhibition was a hundred years ago and what persisted into the modern day. One is really obvious, and that’s a superiority: it was a race-based superiority, and now it’s a superiority of being the most good in the world – superior goodness.
What do you mean by superior goodness?
LC: The most humanitarian, the most anti-racist, the most gender-equal.
F: Just really, really good, so good by nature…I don’t think it’s just a Norwegian phenomenon: this goodness, like, I’m so good at equality. It’s this anti-racist racism, when your extreme right-wing political party will go into a gay parade just to show that they’re better than Muslims, you know, or that Muslims can’t do this, but we’re Europeans, we’re really good.
LC: It’s a European thing, but it has a special brand in Scandinavia.
Norway was a bit behind the times in mounting this exhibit in 1914, why was that?
F: Norway wanted to show that they’re part of the developed world: that they also have human zoos. They even contracted someone from a British company based in India who built the human zoo. It is still going on, Norway, for example, pays the most money to NATO, because they have to be a part of NATO, they have to be part of the cool people. It was just to follow the footsteps of the great nations. It was also to celebrate 100 years since they signed their constitution, it was a big exhibition and they wanted to show how developed and how advanced they were.
So next year will be the 200th anniversary of the constitution? Does Norway have a lot of events planned with that?
F: Absolutely. It’s about how nice and good they are.
LC: Promoting tolerance, and openness…basically the same message that’s been going on for a long time, genuinely good people, and this brand has been so successful that I think they’re just going to keep going with this.
You call it a ‘brand’ of good people?
LC: Well, the branding of the national identity has been based on this goodness, one of the defining characteristics that has been accepted.
F: If you remember what happened on the 22nd of July [2011, when gunman Anders Behring Brevik set off a bomb in Oslo and murdered participants of a youth camp on the island of Utøya], both sides claimed to be nationalist, the guy who killed everybody was claiming that he was doing it because of Norway and because he’s a nationalist, but also the official answer of Norway was nationalist, like this is not how you’re supposed to be a nationalist, this is how you’re supposed to be a nationalist. If you kill people, then we go out with flowers and think that we’re a rainbow nation and we love everybody, which is just bullshit.
Hence the national therapist.
F: Yeah, sometimes you have to tell them, “This is bullshit.”
LC: There’s a lot of self-delusion in this insistence of being so innocent and good all the time, you’re going to have to repress some ideas about some truths. So you’re going to have to repress some ideas about your self-image. And it’s not so strange, artistically speaking as well, this idea of cementing the nation-state. Biennials are a by-product of the worlds’ fairs and still use this fetishism to represent people based on ethnicity, nationality, saying where they come from, especially if they’re from eastern countries. You know, they make this mistake of saying where people are from when they’re non-western and forgetting to say where they’re from when they’re western.
F: Absolutely. Even when I’m representing Norway, like I just had an exhibition at the Norwegian museum of contemporary art, it was written in the catalogues that I’m from Sudan. And I’m a Norwegian citizen, I have a Norwegian passport, but they make sure to mention that I’m from Sudan, it’s just so weird.
LC: And [with me it’s] the opposite, I’m Swedish-Canadian, and it’s like, whatever, you’re in Norway, just say you’re Norwegian. This idea of representation is one of the remnants of how we still relate to this exoticized image of each other, and it teaches us something. This is the same thing as the human zoo: it was supposed to carry some specific knowledge of superiority.
In Will Bradley’s essay on your website, he comments that it was originally supposed to be a Sami village exhibition, but since the Sami people were Norwegian citizens, it was considered unacceptable, so then the Congolese people acted as a sort of substitute. Does this distinction still exist between the Citizen and Other?
F: Absolutely, this is also what we want to talk about: you have to know the difference between this old racism and the new one that’s happening now. I want to point you to [German theorist] Fatima El-Tayeb, who talks about exactly this: how you’ll always be a foreigner, when you’re a fourth-generation Pakistani, that will always be your name, you can’t just get rid of it. But this is just a small part of it: we’re also talking about the racism that’s embedded in the system, the laws. We can’t talk about racism without talking about class, and money: you know, you’re from East Europe, you’re definitely less than Norwegian. If you think about it, definitely in the system, you don’t have as much money as we have. And the system is designed this way, it is a racist system.
LC: And the way of dealing with it clearly doesn’t work. You asked about Sami, and the history with the Sami people, I mean, it’s surprising to see that they would make that distinction back then. I think they actually just wanted to see Africans. Because they were sterilizing Sami people up until the 1970s in Scandinavia, I think they just thought it wasn’t exotic enough, they already saw the Samis around. It sounded like a good argument, they were tax-paying citizens of Norway and this would be an insult to them, but I think that’s a diversion.
F: But another possibility is that the event was to celebrate the constitution, so maybe that was the beginning of establishing this identity of goodness.
Did Norway have any sort of colonial or particular trade relationship with Congo?
F: Well, yes, they do, you know, they say that they don’t, but they do, in fact. So many Norwegian officers were in Congo in [Belgian] King Leopold’s army and made a fortune. Also, there were so many Norwegian ships that were built to take slaves to the States, I mean, everyone has something to do with it, as long as you’re rich at this point of history. All these nice people, they were all quite rich, they made a lot of money, they served King Leopold in Congo and brought it back to Norway.
LC: But as far as our project is concerned, we’re not necessarily doing an archival project – partly because we want to deal with things in a different way and the way that these things are dealt with – through a kind of archival visual process – it’s not working, it’s not changing anything. There seems to be a distance that we can have between the archival relationship that makes us feel that it has nothing to do with us. We’re going to show the video from the  exhibition, but this project is about Norway today.
F: It’s not about the Norwegian history, it’s about today. It’s not even about Congo at all.
LC: Back then, [the exhibit] was a fiction passed off as authenticity, and, obviously, it’s very staged, all it serves is to give a specific knowledge which is fabricated. So to show this imagery from the past, it doesn’t really tell us anything, we have to rewrite and re-understand history, this is why re-enactment, artistically, should work much better than archival imagery; to create a new understanding of the past through re-enactment. But this is also something that is brought up quite well by others in the conference.
What is your goal with the conferences? You had the first one three years ago, and this one is a year in advance.
F: That one was a press conference. We did it just to start a debate because we needed some input, and this one, we’re doing based on the input that we got after that conference. We’re looking for better questions. Normally so many events will start some sort of debate in the media, but then it goes in a circle, the same arguments, the same answers, the same questions. So we just want to consume them and then move on, try to find new questions.
LC: If we didn’t do this, then this stuff would come up when we do the exhibition in 2014. There’s no way we would be able to get past this petulant discussion which would be emotional, this discussion is done so many times, it’s like an open wound, it’s never ever healing, and you get tired of it. So you end it prematurely and it never actually gets to be digested in any real sense.
I think part of the criticism that came our way was that we didn’t explain, in some peoples’ opinions, good enough why it was necessary to do this. It’s not necessarily our job to explain why this is necessary in detail. We understand that it’s necessary to make people feel uncomfortable for a specific reason, but, since we’ve gone through all this process, if people ask these questions, why would you do this, why is this project important, we have a lot of information we could put in front of them. And it’s necessary, I think, since we’re so incapable of having real discussions about making real change, especially when we’re talking about art that can be passed off as its only purpose being about a reaction. That’s not to say that creating a reaction through art is ineffective and unnecessary, but when you can pass something off as only being for the reaction, you lose the potential of having a discussion of what that reaction might be about.
Obviously, this needs a reaction because we have to reactivate the information about it, and it’s also about this idea of making people feel uncomfortable, well the fact that, being able to go through your life and living in your culture without ever having to feel uncomfortable about what your culture represents and all the innuendoes which exist.
F: That’s a problem. This is one of the points that we’re suggesting in the conference, there are so many efforts in Europe to fight racism, or homophobia, Islamophobia, whatever. But do they accomplish anything? There are so many activist groups, but do they really change anything? Because I don’t know if they do, I don’t feel like they do. But somehow, if we will just make people uncomfortable, just for a while, maybe that’s just worth it, just to do that. And I don’t know if it will change anything.
Could you talk a bit about the reaction you’ve had, from your first press conference and since then?
F: About half the people were really for the project and the other half were extremely against it. It got personal at some point, we got really personal emails and people were threatening us.
LC: It’s really mixed. A lot of people, when they first see this video [of the 1914 exhibit], they didn’t know about it and it was news to a lot of people. Many people’s first reaction to this, and especially a lot of native Norwegians’ reaction, is to laugh. This is the most common reaction to finding out this information.
We’re trying to figure out what this laugh was about. One problem is that we always think that we live in the height of development. And in this part of the world we think that we live in not only the most morally developed part of the world, but the most morally developed time ever. So we can look back on that and laugh because we can accept that it is part of a past that is naïve, and stupid, and of course they would do that back then because of their view of humanity, but today we’re way better, we have a very good view on humanity, we have the best view on humanity. It’s part of what makes it possible to forget something like this.
But it’s generally true at any time, isn’t it, that we live in the most developed times ever? Maybe not the most developed times possible...
LC: I would argue that in some aspects, we do carry some sense that we have the most developed possible positions. How could we get any more developed than thinking that everybody is our equal?
F: This is a very interesting point, that when you’re really for equality, you feel like you’re primed to treat everybody equally. You’re the best at treating people equally, nobody is better than you. So suddenly, you’re not equal to nobody, you’re just better than anybody.
LC: Then as well, the equality thing just goes in circles because you’re defining a hierarchy of equalities, becoming more and more equal-minded, and then somebody is left behind. But this could have something to do with how possible it is to forget in this collective forgetting, thinking that we live in the most developed times is part of maintaining a self-image and an image of what kind of culture you belong to. And it’s important to maintain this image, so you could be hiding things that contradict it. So even though you could say this is a very subconscious forgetting, it could also be a very active kind of denial based on maintaining that image.
Your website, so far, has some texts and information on the conference, but not so many details of how this will be carried out – are these things planned yet? How similar will it be to recreating the 1914 exhibition?
LC: As far as the details go, this conference is meant to establish a framework around what is important, what is necessary and what can be disregarded. And to answer the question it would be necessary to quote all the speakers and all the videos, hence the reason for the conference. Together the voices we compiled make up a picture we are trying to compose.
F: There is one very important fact, and that is time, that one was in 1914 and this one will be 2014. Yeah, it will look the same. But it will not be the same, of course it will not be the same because this is 2014.
LC: When we’re saying that we’re restaging something, it automatically goes into being about the same things, saying that the people that are being exhibited will be in the same situation, the audience will be in the same situation…
F: Which is not true, we hope that this is not going to happen. In 1914 they just went and hunted some people and brought them over there, now we’ll have a contract and people will come and work and perform, and also the audience, hopefully they are a bit different now. If anybody’s looking at some black guy as less, that’s a weird thing, if it’s happening in 2014. If somebody’s doing this, this is primitive racism, we’re past that, we want to discuss the smarter one, the one that shows the anti-racist face but behaves racist.
LC: The savvy, sort of humanitarian and goodwill racist, which is actually described as anti-racist. It’s actually actively anti-racist, through implementing programs which are based on an idea of superiority, that we have something to give you, we have something to teach, to export, we are better because we are more modern.
F: Of course we’re also talking about xenophobia, and Islamophobia and how you can use those things, as I said: if you’re a right-wing political party, what can you do to fix your image? To have a lady as the leader of your political party, and go in gay parades, just to show that, Muslims will not do that, we’re western, we do this stuff, that’s why they don’t belong here. And this difference is just proving, ‘those people are just so different, that it just will not work.’ That they can’t just be here, it just wouldn’t work, but I don’t hate them, I don’t have a problem with them as human beings, it just will not work.
LC: It’s a sophisticated kind of racism, because it can work more populistically, you can talk to people about it. This message could resonate that there’s a historical maturity, and we just happen to be on top of that, so it’s understandable that we can’t get along. You can internalize this idea that these people are not going to treat other human beings as good, so there’s a reason to exclude.
F: Unless they prove that they’re able to behave the right way, you have to go through this process of assimilation, or, as they will say in a polite way, integration.
LC: But it’s a savvy and sophisticated exclusion that actually looks quite humanitarian. It looks like it’s understanding of different positions and different circumstances. You could tell yourself you’re actually learning more about peoples’ circumstances and in that process also understand why you should be, for instance, scared, and not want your kids to be mixing in schools, and all this kind of shit.
Going back to the details of the exhibition: my question was predominantly: how important is the actual village, as opposed to the discussions taking place in the conference and already taking place?
LC: Think about why people wanted to go to this exhibit in 1914, this is based on a kind of curiosity, to gain knowledge. Now there’s still this curiosity for people to know – they want to see this. A lot of people are pushing us to make sure that this village gets set up. Now this curiosity and this expectation that is built, we’re not sure what that expectation is based on, what is it people want to see, but this expectation feels kind of similar to what would draw people to the exhibition in 1914. So we’re going to keep that expectation up until we actually do something in 2014.
F: If your question was if it’s happening or not, yeah, it is. We’re building it.