Updated: Tuesday, 03 December 2013 01:47 | By Agence France-Presse

Shining light on Africa's colonial atrocities

Pygmies exhibited like animals before a gawping public. Forced labour with amputations to encourage productivity. Medical experiments used to justify Nazi theories of Aryan superiority.


Shining light on Africa's colonial atrocities

A scene from a performance installation entitled "Exhibit B" by Brett Bailey, at the Eglise des Celestins in Avignon, southern France, on July 11, 2013

Even now, many of the horrors of colonial Africa are insufficiently understood in the countries that inflicted them, according to Brett Bailey, a South African whose latest performance installation, Exhibit B, explores some of the most shocking.

"A lot of these atrocities were committed in the name of colonialism and in the name of bringing civilisation, Jesus Christ etc to Africa," he told AFP in Paris.

"Thousands and tens of thousands were murdered and these have all been covered up and secreted away." 

Bailey, who uses real people in his installation, was inspired by the "human zoo" exhibits popular during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries.

Europeans and Americans once flocked to these exhibits in which Africans such as pygmy Ota Benga posed in native dress.

Ota was brought to New York in the early years of the 20th century by American Samuel Verner after the explorer and businessman stumbled on a village inhabited by cannibals in the Belgian Congo.

The cannibals had captured a group of pygmies and after establishing that the prisoners would rather go to America than be eaten Verner negotiated their sale.

On one day alone in 1906, 40,000 people turned up to view Ota at the monkey house at Bronx Zoo.

"These exhibits were used to justify imperialism," said Bailey, also a playwright, theatre director and arts curator whose current work has just been shown in Paris ahead of stints in Strasbourg from Tuesday and Edinburgh and London next year.

"There was a sort of political agenda that was behind it, to reduce people to colonial positions, objects for exhibition," he said.

In one of Exhibit B's 12 displays, a woman sits on a chair on a floor of broken glass. In front of her, barbed wire runs between two posts topped with human skulls.

'Denigrating one racial group'

The scene depicts the plight of the Herero people who rebelled against German colonial rule in what is now Namibia.

In concentration camps there, Herero women were made to boil the decapitated heads of fellow prisoners and scrape them clean with shards of glass.

Medical experiments by German professor Eugen Fischer on Hereros resulted in theories later used by the Nazis to justify the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

In another display, a man with a basket filled with casts of human hands is a reference to forced labour in Congo.

As an incentive to ensure maximum productivity, the hands of those who failed to harvest enough rubber were cut off.

And Bailey brings things up to date with a modern-day African migrant to Europe, hands and feet bound and adhesive tape over his mouth, on a deportation flight.

The scene is a reference to young Somalian migrant Mariame Getu Hagos who died after being restrained during an attempt to deport him from Paris to Johannesburg in January 2003.

"Politics runs through all my works," said Bailey, adding that he had been influenced by growing up during apartheid, under "a system which was about denigrating one racial group".

But he said that despite the end of apartheid he found it difficult to be optimistic about South Africa's future.

The country lacked an "Obama figure" to inspire hope, he said.

"The two great shames of the South African transition is that there was very little economic transformation and the education system has become worse. It is deteriorating.

"We don't have somebody putting a new vision on the table for us. We had Mandela 20 years ago and he set a beautiful foundation.

But, he said, his legacy had been allowed to falter.

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