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    The "Other"

    The “Other”

    In the 19th c, exhibitions were commonly organized to promote particular European worldviews. Most of the worldviews that were pushed forth were extraordinarily problematic and often helped to elevate curious European spectators into self-avowed hegemonic positions.1 This post demonstrates how the European quest to “civilize” Africa, along with the colonially-linked technological development of photography, led to the unsettling 19th-century practice of displaying Africans in human zoos and worked to affirm and promote the narrative of Africans as the “uncivilized” other.2 

    Well before Europeans encountered people on the continent of Africa, Europeans already had a tainted perception and a skewed image of Africans engrained in their minds. Africans, they thought, were barbaric, oddly-shaped, uncivilized, savage, cannibalistic and in some cases, only half-human.3 The European perception and misunderstandings of Africans were in part perpetuated by “eyewitness” accounts such as that of Sir John Mandeville who recorded his first encounter with Africans and described them as creatures who had eyes and mouths on their breasts and were without ears or noses. In another account, explorer, Marco Polo, described Africans as hairy men with tails like dogs.4 These “eyewitness” accounts made by explorers and writers, were taken by Europeans as indisputable truth and thus laid the foundation for their racist history. The fictional accounts also enabled Europeans to establish a hierarchy that placed themselves above all others. The hierarchy encouraged colonial discourses that confirmed the white body and mind as normal, cognitive and superior in contrast to the inferior black mind and abnormal, defective black body, and aided in contriving the Africans-as-savages narrative5—  a narrative that was later used to justify the colonization of Africa under the guise of Europeans helping to “civilize” it.6  

    During the time that Europeans were “civilizing” Africa, many Africans were involuntarily shipped to exhibitions in the west and were set up in their “natural habitats,” often alongside animals in cages, on display for European spectators to see. The display of black bodies in these stereotypical, western-imagined and western-created “natural habitats”— which were proposed to viewers as accurate representations of African villages— had the principal purpose of presenting Africans as animals thus legitimizing European claims of their incivility. By legitimizing Africans as uncivilized, colonial subjugation in Africa was further validated and was seen as a moralistic measure.6 The inclusion of animals in the displays of the African people established and strengthened the notion of Africans being the “other” as they were observed as being a half-human species that were closer to animals than they were to white, fully-human Europeans, and as the European curiosity of African people grew, so too did the repulsive but then-popular trend of human zoos and other human exhibitions in the 19th c.7 

    Human zoos saw their beginnings in the 19th c and continued well into the 20th c. They became a staple attraction in world fairs and other exhibitions and were marketed to the masses as a form of entertainment and education due to the inclusion of quasi-anthropological scientific validation and pseudo-anthropometric and ethnographic research.8 In these human zoos, Africans were forced to perform stereotypical rituals; they were often presented nude or barely clothed, and there was a focus placed on their physicality. In this way, the “panopticon system”9 that human zoos functioned in, allowed for and encouraged Europeans to further distance themselves from the “other” they were observing, and also emboldened European spectators to assert their dominance over Africans, and take pride in their appearance, their progressive modernity, their morals, and their civility.10 


    In addition to being presented as entertainment, education, and justification for colonial subjugation, the distinction and unveiling of “others” in human zoos served another purpose; They were cash-grabs that proved very lucrative to all of the organizers that were involved in their growing popularity.11 P. T. Barnum was one such organizer whose claims to fame were his exploitative exhibitions of the “other.” One of Barnum’s most famed shows, What-Is-It?, featured William Henry Johnson, an African boy who was advertised in posters as the “Monkey Man,” the “Missing Link” and the “Wild Boy.”12 The poster [fig. 1] depicts Johnson as a grotesque, not-quite-human male in a hairy, knee-length smock. He stands with his knees bent on feet that appear webbed and deformed. The figure, Johnson, stands in a three-quarter profile pose that highlights his abnormally-small described head and misshapen skull. He holds a stick in his right hand as if not having it would render him unable to walk, and in the background, a scene of barren, hilly land with bushes and a single tree on the right are observed. Below Johnson, a caption reads: “Is it a lower order or MAN? Or is it a higher order of MONKEY? None can tell.’ Perhaps it is a combination of both. It is beyond dispute THE MOST MARVELLOUS CREATURE LIVING, it was captured in a savage state in Central Africa, is probably about 20 years old, 4 feet high, intelligent, docile, active, sportive, and PLAYFUL AS A KITTEN. It has a skull, limbs and general anatomy of an ORANG OUTANG and the COUNTENANCE of a HUMAN BEING.”13


    The intention and purpose of this poster and its caption are clear. This poster was not just about encouraging visitors to see the show; it also perpetuated the narrative of Africans as the “other” by depicting Johnson as a “half-human,” unknown creature and claiming that he was a savage animal that needed to be “captured.” He is described in the caption as an object which serves no other purpose than to satisfy the thirst of the European gaze. In Reality, William Henry Johnson was a man who stolen from Africa, forced to perform stereotypes, and most likely without his permission, had posters made of him that deliberately exaggerated his features to fit a particular European worldview and worked to “confirm” Africans as the “other.”

    The “othering” of Africans by Europeans did not happen solely through their animalistic displays of captured, “uncivilized” Africans in human zoos, and exaggerated depictions on promotional posters for shows like P. T. Barnum’s What-Is-It? The “othering” of Africans by Europeans was also practiced through a technological development with links to colonialism: photography. Throughout colonialism, photographers took photographs that worked to further European stereotypes of Africans, as well as they took photographs that elevated the discourse of European superiority.15 Colonial photographs were often carefully crafted and used to highlight the “otherness” of Africans by including European subjects for contrast, which aimed to differentiate Africans from Europeans and prove their “incivility.” Also, these photographs often captured the reality of colonialism Africans endured by displaying the power Europeans had to extract natural resources from Africa.16


    The colonial photograph, [fig.2] depicts a group of European colonizers in what appears to be an African village. The six Europeans are well-dressed and stand somewhat neatly in a row. Their gazes directed to the camera are calm but cold and match perfectly with their demeanours. Behind them is what appears to be a straw-roofed structure and in the foreground before them, a scattered collection of elephant tusks is presented in a display that asserts their dominance, power and self-entitlement to Africa’s resources. 

    To the left of the European colonizers, a young, bareback African boy wearing a white sarong is noted. He stands stiffly, staring blankly and directly into the camera with an expressionless face, while his arms hang militantly at his sides.

    Within the row of the European colonizers, another African male is pictured. Unlike the other Africans seen in this photograph, he wears western clothing —white trousers and a white button-up shirt—albeit, not as sharp or well-fitted as the clothing worn by the Europeans pictured. He also gazes directly into the camera with an expressionless face and a blank stare. His arms too fall at his sides, but his hands appear to be clasped behind his back.

    On the right side of the photograph, far from being the photograph’s main focus, a group of African males are seen. The staging of the European colonizers as the focus and the African men on the right appears intentional as it acts as a clear visual division between the “civilized,” superior whites, and the “uncivilized,” inferior blacks.

    Unlike the somewhat neat row that the European colonizers have formed for this picture, the African men are pictured in slight disarray. They are all bareback and are seen sitting, standing, and crouching, and because of the way they are grouped, some figures are


    impossible to observe in their entirety. On the faces of the African men is a broad mix of expressions that range from despondence to resentment and possibly defeat; however, because of the shadows cast over their faces, it is difficult to be certain. 

    Because photographs were considered to be truthful representations of their subjects in the 19th c,17 staged colonial photographs like [fig.2] falsely validated the European perception of the “uncivilized” African, helped to “confirm” European superiority,18 and circulated the European classification of the “other.”

    The European quest to “civilize” and colonize Africa, along with the tainted European worldview of Africans, resulted in the forceful displacement of Africans to the west to involuntarily participate in the disgusting practice of displaying black bodies in human zoos for European spectators. Those who were displayed were dehumanized, humiliated, and often-times, abused.19 Human zoos were a way for Europeans to assert their superiority and prove their civility.20 By comparing themselves to the performances of “uncivilized” Africans that they saw, Europeans developed standards which they used to categorize Africans as the “other.” 

    Photography was used as a means to validate the African “otherness” and provide proof of incivility. Present-day observation of these photographs confirms that they did prove incivility; however, not on the part of the African people. The “civilizing,” colonizing, exploitation and “othering” of Africans by European people, brings to light the racism, bigotry and entitlement that now constitutes European history and sadly, still dictates much of the European perception of Africa and Africans today.


    1.T. Bennett, “The exhibitionary complex,” New Formations, (1988):76.

    2. Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre, and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1097.

    3.Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1095.

    4.Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010): 1095.

    5. Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1095.

    6.Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1096.

    7. Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1097.

    8. Ben Chikha Chokri & Karel Arnaut, “Staging/caging ‘otherness’ in the postcolony: spectres of the human zoo,” Critical Arts, 27:6, (2013): 667.

    9. Ben Chikha Chokri & Karel Arnaut, “Staging/caging ‘otherness’ in the postcolony: spectres of the human zoo,” Critical Arts, 27:6, (2013): 668. 

    10.Ben Chikha Chokri & Karel Arnaut, “Staging/caging ‘otherness’ in the postcolony: spectres of the human zoo,” Critical Arts, 27:6, (2013): 668.

    11. Sánchez-Gómez, “Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contingency in Living Ethnological Exhibitons,” Culture & History Digital Journal 2, (2013):4. 

    12. Bernth Lindfors, “P.T. Barnum and Africa,” Studies in Popular Culture 7, (1984): 20.

    13. Bernth Lindfors, “P.T. Barnum and Africa,” Studies in Popular Culture 7, (1984): 20.

    [Fig, 1], P. T. Barnum’s What-Is-It? poster, N.D.

    14. Terence Ranger, “Colonialism, Consciousness and the Camera,” Past & Present, no. 171, (2001): 203.

    15. Hannah Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” International Affairs Review, (2014): 2.

    16. Hannah Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” International Affairs Review, (2014): 4.

    [Fig, 2], [Africans Photographed With European Colonizers], N.D. 19.

    17. Hannah Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” International Affairs Review, (2014): 1.

    18. Hannah Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” International Affairs Review, (2014): 4.

    19. Brittany Myburgh, “Natural and Unnatural Works of Display,” Lecture, Cultures of Exhibition from the University of Toronto, CA, July 10, 2019.

    20.  Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,”Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1095


    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Chokri, Ben Chikha & Karel Arnaut. “Staging/caging ‘otherness’ in the postcolony: spectres of the human zoo.” Critical Arts. 27:6. (2013): 661-683.

    Gómez, Sánchez. “Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contingency in Living Ethnological Exhibitons,” Culture & History Digital Journal 2, 2(2), (2013): e022.

    Konkobo, Christophe. “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema.” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6 (2010): 1094-1106.

    Lindfors, Bernth. “P.T. Barnum and Africa.” Studies in Popular Culture 7 (1984): 18-27. 

    Mabry, Hannah. “Photography, Colonialism and Racism.” International Affairs Review. (2014): 1-7.

    Myburgh, Brittany. “Natural and Unnatural Works of Display.” Lecture. Cultures of Exhibition from the University of Toronto, CA. July 10, 2019.

    Ranger, Terence. “Colonialism, Consciousness and the Camera.” Past & Present, no. 171 (2001): 203-215.

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