Paris: ‘Human zoo’ art show provokes anger

Protesters and rights groups in Paris are calling for the banning of an art show featuring black actors in cages that mimic the "human zoos" of the 19th century. It has already been scrapped in London due to an outcry.

Paris: 'Human zoo' art show provokes anger
A picture taken on July 11, 2013, during the 67th International Theatre festival of Avignon, shows an actress performing in a play entitled "Exhibit B" by South African Brett Bailey. Photo: Franck Pe

The white South African artist Brett Bailey says his “Exhibit B”, which mimics the late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of the "human zoo”, is meant to raise awareness of the racism of Europe’s colonial past.

It is due to open in the French capital later this month, but it is now raising heckles among race campaigners such as those behind a French petition to have it stopped and who see it as an “exhibition composed of degrading representations of black people.”

“It is already surprising that in the mixed districts of northern Paris, the multi-ethnic population is being invited to come and learn about the racism of a white South African,” said the petition that has been signed by 14,000 people. 

“It is all the more shocking that the possibilities for black artists to present their work in these prestigious cultural centres are extremely limited,” it added.

The same exhibition was due to take place in London but protesters successfully put a block on it last month.

The show alludes to the phenomenon of “human zoos” which once showcased non-whites, mostly from colonized territories, for white audiences to observe in parklike settings in Europe and the United States.

The artist also says he uses “tableaux”, such as one featuring a modern-day asylum seeker bound to a plane seat with tape, to try and make people question their role as voyeurs in contemporary human tragedies.

France's black community rights group CRAN said it was not calling for the exhibition to be stopped but said that while “it might be well-intentioned it reinforces stereotypes”.

“It shows black people as passive and as victims,” CRAN president Louis-Georges Tin told The Local. “It never shows the struggle by black people for their own emancipation.”

The two state-funded centres where the show is to take place, the Centquatre and the Theatre Gérard Philippe, vowed in an open letter this week that the show would go ahead and that they would not cave in to protesters who had not even seen the exhibition.

“This work of art unambiguously denounces all forms of dehumanization and of racism,” the letter said.

The latest controversy comes after protesters last month physically attacked the “Tree” installation – which many saw as no more than a giant anal plug – by US artist Paul McCarthy in Paris’s Place Vendome.

by Rory Mulholland


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Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.