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Colonial Cliches in a German Zoo?

Thomas Mösch (jb)June 9, 2005

Many zoos put on special exhibits in order to attract visitors. Most also attract little notice much less controversy. But one zoo in southern Germany is causing an uproar with a new event, an "African village."

Maybe not the best setting for an exhibit of African cultureImage: AP

An "African village" in a German zoo sounds a bit strange. Still, a zoo in Augsburg in Bavaria has created a special exhibit complete with a steppe setting to attract visitors. But since their intention became public, it has attracted protests. The group Initiative for Black People in Germany has also called to complain and wants the exhibit stopped. Spokeswoman Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly said she is bothered not just bay the exhibit but also its name, which is promoting generalizations.

Unidentifizierter afrikanischer Comic
The show makes caricatures of Africans, critics say

"First of all, there is no one 'African' village," she said. "Secondly, not all African landscapes are steppe. This is a reduction of Africans in the old colonial tradition - Africans as living close to nature with the animals. It is this colonial viewpoint that bothers us."

Worst possible setting

The spokeswoman and other critics also from outside Germany are also reminded of other exhibits in zoos like ones in the 19th century that were meant to promote a greater understanding of foreign cultures, particularly in newly colonized lands. These exhibits served, above all, to promote a view for visitors of Europeans as having the more civilized culture. For this reason, critics say, the zoo is the worst possible place to hold such an exhibit.

"The zoo also evolved out of colonial tradition," Wiedenroth-Coulibaly said. "And those former exhibits also came out about the same time, ones where people were displayed in a zoo, in nature, with animals, non-European. And they as such are defamatory. And some people don't see that or don't want to see that."

Alltag in Äthiopien
There is no one single African villageImage: AP

She is referring to the zoo's director, Barbara Jantschke, whose first reaction to the complaints confirmed critics' complaints. The Augsburg Zoo would be the right place to impart an exotic atmosphere, she wrote. She referred to the show's organizer, Egyptian-born Munich-based event manager Medhat Abdelati. He said that he in no uncertain terms wanted the show to tie in with colonial and racist traditions, because he, himself, has African heritage.

"I don't find anything objectionable," he said. "And if I would stop it now, I would just give their opinions more strength. I have invited them to visit and see the show before they judge it."

Bad choice

In the meantime, he understands that the choice of the title was not great and could lead to misunderstandings.

"We are treating it as a cultural festival," he said. "With art, jewelry, masks, that people can buy. There is even a program for children."

Regardless, critics still believe that a zoo is not an appropriate place to hold a cultural festival and are holding protests against the exhibition. Zoo officials say they won't cancel the show: They have offered to hold a workshop to discuss the issues during the festival.