The "Other"

The “Other”

In the long nineteenth century, exhibitions were commonly organized to promote particular European worldviews. Exhibitions were designed to visually communicate scientific discoveries during an era of exploration, expansion, and colonization, such as the display of natural specimens in museums and dioramas. However, many forms of popular visual culture sought to display the unnatural and the spectacular, through modes of exhibition such as human zoos and freakshows. The European worldviews that motivated these modes of exhibition were extraordinarily problematic, and the displays 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 how nineteenth-century visual culture worked to affirm and promote the narrative of Africans as the “uncivilized” other.2

Well before many Europeans encountered people from the continent of Africa, they often already held popular perceptions and a skewed image of Africans. As a result of popular visual and literary culture, 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, 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 narratives that sought to justify racism. These fictional accounts 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 nineteenth century European colonization of Africa, many Africans were forcibly shipped to exhibitions in the west and were presented in their “natural habitats,” often alongside animals in cages, and placed 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 and 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. 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. As the European curiosity of African people grew, so too did the deeply problematic but then-popular trend of human zoos and other human exhibitions in the 19th century.7

Human zoos saw their beginnings in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. They became a staple attraction in World Fairs and other exhibitions, and they 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 within 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

The jarring image [fig. 1] of a mother and child provides a snapshot of these peoples who, because of their appearance and race, were displayed purely for the perverse enjoyment of ignorant Parisians at the World Fair in Paris. The photograph appears to have been taken on a makeshift stage on a busy city Parisian street. In the background, various French signs and doorways are visible. In the foreground, a group of three well-dressed white men with full mustaches and top hats alongside well-dressed young boys surround a black mother who is seated on a chair, protectively clinging to her toddler that sits on her lap. Behind the seated woman and toddler, one of the white men is seen resting his hand on the back of the chair on which they sit. It is a gesture that elicits a feeling of his claiming ownership over them. The mother, who like her toddler is dressed in foreign garb, wears a headwrap and gazes directly into the camera with an expression of resignation, and perhaps also resentment. It seems clear that her participation is involuntary. The toddler, although likely too young to comprehend what is happening entirely, also looks directly into the camera with an expression of confusion or fright, and, perhaps for comfort, holds tightly onto his mother’s finger.

On the left, [fig.1], Princess. Fairground. Museum [France], postcard, c.1890.

Human exhibitions gained traction due to the development of and the categorizing of different “races” by scientists,11 and they garnered “legitimacy” through the implementation of false artifacts12 and bogus claims of evidence made by pseudo anthropologists.13 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.14 Judged by Western standards, people who were deemed “primitive” and exotic from non-western lands were put on display for the amusement of curious western spectators and the financial gain of freakshow organizers.15 The displayed “freaks” included the likes of “Siamese twins”, people who were deemed overweight, albinos, tall people who were presented as “giants,” “little people,” hairy people, heavily tattooed people or people with skin disorders, and fakes amongst many others.16 The “freaks” in these shows were displayed in two modes: the exotic mode and the aggrandized mode.17

The aggrandized mode of display gave the “freaks” superiority and prestige using smart marketing tactics. The “freaks” were given exclusive titles such as “princess” or “prince,” were adorned in fabulous jewelry to fit the part, and received constructed histories that asserted their learnedness, talents and social affiliations.18 By contrast, those displayed in the “exotic” mode were non-western people who were often observed wearing clothing that reiterated Western stereotypes. They were made to perform tasks or rituals and were set up in their believed or perpetuated natural habitats like human dioramas.19 Put simply, these “freaks” were made out to be freaks due to the manner in which they were displayed. These human displays worked to make the western world look progressive, and these racist human displays of the “other” worked to push forth the notion of the white west having superiority over other races.20

P. T. Barnum was one such organizer of freakshows, and one of his claims to fame was his exploitative exhibitions of the other. The promotional poster for The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth [fig. 2] depicts a large crowd of Western onlookers, gazing up at the “freaks” who are shown to stand or sit in a row, on a horizontal strip stage in a large theatre room. The featured freaks include an Egyptian “giant,” a bearded lady, a “little person”, a sword swallower and a few others. As stated earlier, the displayed persons would often be given elaborate but made-up or embellished backstories which visitors could read more about in the guides that were provided to them that could be kept as souvenirs. The guides, together with the presence of “lecturers” and “experts,” gave the claims regarding the authenticity of the displayed persons and their backstories a false legitimacy; therefore, they only worked to perpetuate Western misconceptions, and contrary to what was believed at the time, these displays served no real educational purpose.

On the left, [fig.2] The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth … The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena & Marvelous Living Human Curiosities poster. 1899. Library of Congress

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.”21 The poster [fig. 3] 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 what was described as his abnormally-small 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 can be 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 ORANGOUTANG and the COUNTENANCE of a HUMAN BEING.”22

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 was 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.23 Throughout colonialism, photographers took photographs that worked to further European stereotypes of Africans as well as photographs that elevated the discourse of European superiority.24 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.” Moreover, these photographs often captured the reality of colonialism that Africans endured by displaying the power Europeans had to extract natural resources from Africa.25

On the left, [Fig, 3], P. T. Barnum’s What-Is-It? poster, N.D

This is evident in a colonial photograph, [fig.4] which 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 are 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, African boy wearing a white sarong can be observed. 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 his European counterparts. 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 left, [Fig, 4], [Africans Photographed with European Colonizers], N.D.

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 marked expression of despondence.

Because photographs were considered to be truthful representations of their subjects in the 19th century,26 staged colonial photographs falsely validated the European perception of the “uncivilized” African, helped to “confirm” European superiority,27 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 practice of displaying black bodies in human zoos for European spectators. Those who were displayed were dehumanized, humiliated, and often-times, abused. Human zoos were a way for Europeans to assert their superiority and prove their civility.28 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 that pervades this period of 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] Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre, and Cinema,” 1095.

[4] Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre, and Cinema,”

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

[6] Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,” 1096.

[7] Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,” 1097.

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

[1] Chokri & Arnaut, “Staging/caging ‘otherness’ in the postcolony: spectres of the human zoo,” 668. [1] Ibid.

[1] Pascal Blanchard, et al., Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, (France:2011): 4.

[1] Lauren Cross, et al., “The First of It’s Kind: A Cultural History of the Village Nègre,” Digital Literature Review, vol. 3 (2016):26.

[1] Cross, et al., “The First of It’s Kind: A Cultural History of the Village Nègre,” 27.

[1] Sánchez-Gómez, “Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contingency in Living Ethnological Exhibitons,” Culture & History Digital Journal 2, (2013): 4. [1] Robert, Bogden, “The Social Construction of Freaks,” In Thompson, Rosemarie Garland, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: NYU Press, 1996): 25.

[1] Bogden, “The Social Construction of Freaks,” 28.

[1] Bogden, “The Social Construction of Freaks,” 29.

[1] Bogden, “The Social Construction of Freaks,” 30.

[1] Myburgh, “Natural and Unnatural Works of Display.” [1] Bogden, “The Social Construction of Freaks,” 30.

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

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

[1] Terence Ranger, “Colonialism, Consciousness and the Camera,” Past & Present, no. 171, (2001): 203. [1] Hannah Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” International Affairs Review, (2014): 2.

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

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

[1] Mabry, “Photography, Colonialism and Racism,” 4. [1] Christophe Konkobo, “Dark Continent, Dark Stage: Body Performance in Colonial Theatre and Cinema,” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 6, (2010):1095


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.