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Black ‘Human Zoo’ Fury Greets Berlin Art Show

Herero Woman
A Herero woman with a skull and a shard of glass above a metal cooking-pot. In Namibia, women prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of men, so that clean skulls could be sent to Nazi Germany for the scientific research. Source: Anke Schuettler/ Berliner Festspiele via Bloomberg

A performance-art show with half-naked black people that’s touring Europe has drawn protests during its visit to Berlin. Activists have termed it “a human zoo.”

White stage director Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B” features museum-style installations of living models in static poses designed to highlight the troubled history of European colonialism in Africa.

Black activists demonstrated at the Kleiner Wasserspeicher, which is showing the work as part of the “Foreign Affairs” Festival, after acclaimed stagings in Brussels and Grahamstown, South Africa.

“This is the wrong way to discuss a violent colonial history,” said Sandrine Micosse-Aikins, a member of Buehnenwatch, the organization which instigated the protest.

In one piece, a black woman sits above a cooking pot, holding a skull and a shard of glass. A plaque describes how Namibian women in concentration camps had to boil and scrape clean the skulls of their menfolk so that they could be sent to Germany for scientific examination in the early 20th century.

In another display, photographs of severed black heads stuffed and skewered on metal prongs recall the work of Eugen Fischer (1874-1967), the German professor of anthropology and eugenics whose theories of “racial hygiene” guided the Nazis.

Below them, the heads of four living Namibian singers seem to float above plinths. They sing beautiful Herero songs about genocide, in counterpoint to the grisly displays.

Asylum Seekers

Contemporary asylum seekers are on show alongside a supine representation of Angelo Soliman, an 18th-century Nigerian philosopher and confidant of Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph I. Upon his death in 1796, Soliman’s body was stuffed and displayed in a glass case alongside wild animals.

An earlier version of the show, “Exhibit A,” opened at Vienna’s Festwochen in 2010 and went on to Braunschweig, Germany, and Helsinki.

On Oct. 2, a post-performance public debate took place in Berlin below the photographs of Fischer’s severed heads.

South African-born spoken-word artist Philipp Khabo Koepsell stood up to challenge Bailey directly.

“If you have a white South African director giving orders to black performers to tell their story voicelessly, you’re not breaking the legacy,” Koepsell said. “You are enforcing and reproducing it. You can call it whatever you like, but the fact is that you as a white, privileged person are sitting there and ordering black people around.”

Zoo Denial

“This is not a human zoo,” Bailey replied. “It’s performance theater. In every city where we show this work, we work with local performers who take control of it.”’

Collivan Nsorockebe Nso plays asylum-seeker Aamir Ageeb, a 20-year-old Sudanese man who was suffocated by German border authorities on a passenger flight from Frankfurt in 1999.

In “Exhibit B,” he sits bound on an aircraft seat, his mouth gagged with white packing tape, meeting the eyes of observers with an expression of pleading anguish. The accompanying plaque lists the names of 14 immigrants who died while resisting deportation from Europe between 1991 and 2010.

“This is my story,” Nso said. “I’m a Cameroonian, and I’ve been in Germany since 2002. I should have been deported in 2006. I hate talking about it. It’s so painful. I don’t want sympathy; this is how we live every day. There is this silence, but we need to talk about these things.”

Marcellinus Swartbooi, one of the four singers playing Fischer’s heads, said: “These are my ancestors. These skulls come from my country. This project was for me a mission, a healing process. It is an educational tool for an audience.”

When organizers called a halt to the public debate at the end of the allotted 45 minutes, the protestors remained, some of them shouting, until security guards ushered them out of the building.

“Exhibit B” goes on to Avignon, France; Paris, Rome, Edinburgh and London.


(Shirley Apthorp writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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