Thursday, October 18, 2012

Neo-colonial gazing.

I recently heard about the horrifying colonial legacy called the "human zoo". Carl Hagenbeck, after whom the Hagenbeck Zoo is named, was a trader in wild animals and pioneer of many European zoos. He started out with the brilliant idea of by kidnapping people (and animals) from various colonies and placed them in exhibits to be gawked at, until they died from diseases.

A friend then sent me a few links to contemporary exhibits that have been compared to these colonial human zoos. One details the protests against "The African Forest" in the Houston zoo, which was built anyway, although thankfully without 'conservation refugees'. However, though the zoo did not include real people in the zoo, they are still discursively present (but rather respectfully!):
Tommy is an exploitive collector and trader with a get-rich-quick agenda. That is, until his cargo plane goes down. He survives, barely, thanks to his timely rescue by indigenous peoples who treat his severe injuries. The experience results in a new-found respect for the deep wisdom of his benefactors and their spiritual connection with their environment.
The Augsburg Zoo was also in the news a few years ago for allegedly putting humans next to animals. Here's an amazing analysis of the "African Village" in Augsburg Zoo in 2005 by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. It links the economic intention of the 'village' to larger processes of racialisation and the global commoditisation of cultural difference.

Source: Afro Netizen

In simpler words, the village was a site for vendors, artists and musicians of African descent (most of whom had already been in Germany for many years) to sell and market their crafts as a form of solidarity with Africa. However, the researchers found that it wasn't well organised, situated, or marketed as neither a money-making nor a humanitarian event by the organisers, a German development organisation.

Instead, visitors went home linking Africans to nature and animals, African Germans became more 'African' than 'German' (racialisation), diverse traditional and contemporary African music was reduced to drumming, diverse African cultures were all collapsed into generic 'African art', and some vendors wore their traditional costumes to appear more exotic and attract more customers (commoditisation of cultural difference).

Source: Plan Augsburg

This is called the neo-colonial gaze: it's no longer colonisers gawking at the colonised through lens of race, but it's the global North gawking at physical and cultural products of the global South.


For one African Village in Augsburg, there are hundreds of smaller African Villages in zoos and theme parks all over the world. I also previously wrote about the  representation of 'Africans' in Efteling, a Dutch amusement park in Tilburg.Why, even in Singapore's Jurong Bird Park there is a section called 'African Wetlands' with statues of half-naked 'African' women carrying water in a pot on her head, and another 'African' man paddling in a canoe. Here's what I got off Wikipedia:

"The new exhibit will give visitors a more balanced eco-system display and hopefully will be able to provide a better understanding of how nature, the birds and men co-exist in this one world we call our home. Species here include shoebill, saddle-billed stork, and a few species of African fish."


In Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

Again, the conflation of 'Africans' as being closer to nature than other people. There's no other exhibit in the park that talks about men living with birds.

A part of the Max Planck report (look at page 18) points out that there were also caricatures of rural Bavarians in the park. You might ask, aren't Germans also being essentialised here? Let's take a more familiar example on a larger scale: the French-themed Colmar Tropicale in Bukit Tinggi, Pahang, Malaysia. The description on its corporate page:

Let the medieval village and picturesque surroundings bring you back to an era steeped in culture and romance....Colmar Tropicale beckons you with enchanting grace and hospitality.

One could argue that rich Asian tourists that come here are doing the same -- looking upon Europeans and essentialising them (by wearing 'French' rural costumes, for example. But playing dress-up is not the same as kidnapping a French person and making them live at Colmar Tropicale!). And arguably, there is a French chef cooking French cuisine in one of the hotels...but one could hardly say he is held captive, even economically. It's absurd to compare Colmar Tropicales to African Villages.

Source: theadobephotos2010


The important difference is that us in the Global South, who built Colmar Tropicale, look towards the Global North as paragons of high culture and class. (And arguably anything else that tries to associate itself with Europe, most easily seen in the use of French phrases and words like  chez moi, beautéaffaire, couture).

We imitate them and create icons of them because we want to be like them. Some call it our colonial hangover -- always looking up to the white man (we don't differentiate between white people either haha!). Also like the report points out, associating animals with Europeans are not part of the caricatures, even though there are animals which are indigenous to certain parts of Europe e.g. black bears.

Conversely, the representations of 'Africans', 'Africa', and 'African culture' is not the same case of "imitation as the sincerest form of flattery". The Hagenbeck zoo was disguised as education, but it compartmentalised and fixed the identities of the 'developing world'. Therefore, to see Sri Lankans as all dancing with masks, and Ethiopians living among zebras. The African Village of the Augsburg zoo was masked also as education, and even solidarity with the real continent of Africa. 

By racialising those who live with us, are we just trying to raise ourselves on a ladder of hierarchy? Or do we try to make them not-human, so we don't have to worry about giving them decent living standards?

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