Back in 1719, Daniel Defoe wrote the still famous novel “Robinson Crusoe”. The plot of which runs as follows. A white educated and civilised European man finds his way onto a far-flung island, builds a home and either fight’s away savage natives or teaches them an enlightened vision for how one should live their life. The implied cultural and racial inferiority of the natives is relentlessly and thoroughly affirmed and as such, the imposing of a political and technological replica of his home society is ethically justified. Take this most quintessential of European narratives, some refined sugar, some boats, a pinch of profit motive and stir. Simmer for 500 years and you have the European Imperial project dissected in loosely critical hindsight.
The role of the imperial arts in the formation of ethical justifications and political will to sustain what was half a millennia of global conquest is somewhat established. Whether correctly represented or not, the works of the great “us and them” inspired art still have a heart beat in contemporary consciousness, yet some of the more disturbing and real life manifestations such as “Human Zoo’s” have all but been collectively erased from the historical identities of the nations that had them. In a sense, this collective amnesia may be no more prevalent than in the nation of Norway. A small country that has built upon the pillars of abundant oil wealth and high levels of ethnic homogeneity a society consistently scoring top marks on modern indicators of human development.
In the year 1914, three-quarters of the then 2 million Norwegians attended what was called the “Kongolandsbyen” or in English the “Congo Village”. On display were 80 Senegalese individuals going about their regular lives in specially crafted African style huts located in its capital Oslo. This village played an intimate role in the 100-year centenary celebrations of the Norwegian state on their famed 17th of May celebration. The exhibition lasted many months and was effectively a Human Zoo in which people observed an extreme Orientalist like depiction of the African native. These exhibitions were established in several western nations and like Robinson Crusoe they served to reinforce in the minds of those that observed them the absolute racial, genetic and civilizational superiority of the ethnic populations that so curiously observed them.
Once again Norway has opened the Congo Village to celebrate the bi-centenary celebrations of the founding of the Norwegian state. Yet this time, it shall be under very different circumstances. Two artists by the names of Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner have resurrected the village according to their own artistic vision. Officially, their website “European attractions limited” states that “we wanted to investigate the linear or non-linear (whatever the case may be) connection between the messages of racial superiority that lined the intentions of the human zoos in the past to a more contemporary idea of superiority of goodness.” A government agency (the nation’s largest producer of art) named KORO funded the project to the tune of about 170, 000 USD. The exhibition formally opened on the 15th of May.
The exhibition threatens to dent the cherished self-image and myth that Norway is inherently good at the same time as offend the historical sensitivities of those historically affected by a world order framed in racial theory. Not surprisingly, it has brought a swarm of criticism and scepticism from what is a unique cross section of people and institutions. We conducted three brief interviews with locals that we feel captured the feelings towards the exhibition.
I chatted with Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner over some beers in a small bar in Oslo. Immediately I raised the context in which I became aware of this project. This was an explosion of social media traffic dedicated to quite nasty insults being levelled at the project and the artists personally. Fadlabi has come under the harshest of attacks. Some of which have made reference to his African origins and accusations of betrayal. Lars commented,
“The goal is to get away from this. To not be perceived as begin understood cause your whatever colours. When you reinforce this kind of thing all the time (such as what we are being accused of) then it gets complicated. It’s interesting because some of the things in this critic expose some of the things that we want to talk about. Then that criticism becomes part of the project, and that is good.” Fadlabi followed up, “We have no problem. We love people opposing the project. The thing is that it is not an easy project. Lars and myself disagree all the time. The people that oppose this are so important but they don’t deal with it the same way. We have no hard feelings. We want people to oppose it, but they feel it is so personal that they get so personal with us.”
Norway, even if absent from the broader discussion on Empire does have a colonial legacy in relation to the original and indigenous people of Scandinavia. The same destructive recipe of forced economic and cultural dislocation familiar to the histories of indigenous populations globally was bestowed on the Sami population well into the second half of the 20th century. Driven by a Norwegian state seeking economic development ever more north, the Sami people today still suffer from the loss of language, culture and traditional ways of life associated with Norwegian colonisation.
It is clear that the very standard orientalist depiction shown in 1914 served to reinforce the same mythical conceptions of racial superiority common to all colonial powers. Same but different mythical conceptions that when viewed through the lens of contemporary Norway, take on a much broader and global perspective. Where the contradictions between a national sense of moral exceptionalism and the reality can be stark. One of Norwegian societies greatest achievements has been the ability to capitalise on a political consensus so as to responsibly develop and distribute massive domestic oil wealth across not only its whole population but also across future generations. By virtue of the
One of Norwegian societies greatest achievements has been the ability to capitalise on a political consensus so as to responsibly develop and distribute massive domestic oil wealth across, not only its whole population but also across future generations. By virtue of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund they have accumulated a treasure chest of between 1-2% of global equities yet represent only 0.071% of global population.
However, through their governments 67% ownership of the oil titan Statoil, the Norwegian people draw profits from oil operations and interests in thirty-six countries. Operations of which represent “37% of Statoil’s, total equity production of oil and gas”. Many of these exist in the traditional stomping grounds of Empire such as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, this only scratches the surface of what is a massive oil and gas sector with heavy state ownership that chases profits in all the same regions of the world that have been exploited for centuries. Paradoxically domestic politics is largely dominated by the standard European brand of toxic discussions over immigration while prevailing discourse is heavily fixed within the egalitarian end of the political spectrum for a privileged citizenry.
It seems that the excessive national branding and myth of Norwegian moral exceptionalism is of a quantity proportional to the actuality of a world economically stratified and being the true nation of the 0.1%. Is this as much a “necessary illusion” for Norway in 2014 as racial superiority was for colonialism in centuries past? This state of affairs is hardly unique to Norway however. The very fact that a project of such controversy is taking place is a credit to the artistic freedoms present in Norwegian society and an indication that art as an organ of culture is helping to balance myth and reality.
Norway is but a microcosm, which reflects a world still fighting between either escaping or profiting from the shadow of constructions born from imperialism. A world that remains reliant on the various national exceptionalisms to justify exploitive and profit driven adventures abroad both military and economic. A world where foreign aid can become the linear decedent of the civilising spirit of the white man’s burden. A world of dehumanising Orwellian language to effectively label foreign and undesirable human beings illegal and the ever-present stigmatisation of the poor to keep economies perpetually stratified.
The Artistic replication of a racially inspired Human Zoo from 1914 shows us that the 1.5 million Norwegians that it attracted were not inherently evil but the idea’s, the necessary illusions, the myths governing their thoughts where. The same but different combination of which govern the present world that remains far from healed of the legacy it inherited from 500 years of conquest based on superior us and lesser them thinking. A reminder that the past nor the present can exist without one another and as we better understand the myths of the past we hopefully become more aware of the myths of the present.
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to . . . .”
– Joseph Conrad