On Monday 2 May 2011, Charles Forsdick and David Murphy reported in the UK Guardian, "France must acknowledge its colonial past: An exhibition of the cultures of France's overseas territories has uncomfortable echoes of colonial 'human zoos": In 1931, the surrealists declared "Do not go to the Colonial Exhibition", and called on the French to boycott that vast display of imperialist propaganda in the east of Paris. The Exposition coloniale of 1931 placed the various peoples of France's empire on display in one of the final and perhaps the most significant examples of "human zoos", those ethnic exhibitions that accompanied the imperial projects of the mid-to-late 19th century.
Eighty years later, a year-long celebration of France's overseas territories (la France d'outre-mer) includes a month-long Jardin en outre-mer – which opened on 8 April – at which spectators can "visit" the cultures of these far-flung corners of the republic. Inexplicably, this garden is located in the Jardin d'Acclimatation , a site inextricably connected to the phenomenon of the human zoo, which has led scholars and activists to declare "We will not go to the Jardin d'Acclimatation".
The lack of sensitivity on the part of the organisers is remarkable, for the Jardin d'acclimatation was the major French site for the exhibition of "savages", starting in 1877 with a group of Nubians. In 1892, an exhibition of Amerindians from Guyana resulted in the death of many of the "exhibited". In total, 34 groups of "savages" or "freaks" were shown in these ethnic exhibitions. The last such exhibit was from New Caledonia in 1931, and among those exhibited were members of the family of the World Cup-winning footballer Christian Karembeu, who relates the story in his recent book, Kanak.
The decision to make 2011 the "year of the outre-mers" was taken by Nicolas Sarkozy in response to the 2009 crisis which saw widespread social protests in Guadeloupe and other overseas territories. Some of the events planned as part of the celebrations indicate a sensitive and informed approach to the culture of overseas France. Unfortunately, though, the scandal surrounding the exhibition at the Jardin d'acclimatation constitutes yet another reminder of the spectral and often undetected presence of the colonial past in France.
In the many articles spawned by the recent introduction of legislation in France outlawing the wearing of the burqa or niqab, for instance, many commentators failed to recognise that the forcible removal of the veil inevitably triggers other historical precedents and associated memories, not least those of women violently unveiled during the Algerian war of independence in the name of a "civilising mission" that deployed the promise of emancipation as an alibi for the retention of colonial rule. To borrow Henry Rousso's term describing the Vichy period, colonialism truly is "a past that has not passed".
Controversial legislation in 2005 attempted state intervention in memorial practices, imposing most notably an obligation on educators to teach the "positive role of the French presence overseas". The "year of the outre-mers" provides further evidence of these history wars regarding the colonial past. Christiane Taubira, MP for French Guyana and sponsor of the 2001 Taubira law recognising the slave trade and slavery as "crimes against humanity", has protested against the exhibition, but in response the minister for overseas territories, Marie-Luce Penchard, answered that "2011 must not serve as an occasion to reinterpret history."
The collective that has come together to declare "We will not go to the Jardin d'acclimatation" argues, on the contrary, that it is dangerous to ignore the past. We are not asking for repentance or refusing to imagine the future. Rather we are convinced that the valorisation of the cultural diversity of the overseas territories must include the knowledge of this past. It is possible for the problematic past of the Jardin d'acclimatation to be transcended by the events planned by the organisers, but only if that past is first acknowledged and not simply ignored.
Pressure from the "We will not go" collective has led the minister, on the very eve of the opening of the Jardin en outre-mer, to invite members of the collective to produce a report on the phenomenon of the human zoo in order to foster greater public awareness of this dark phase of French history. This may be a victory of sorts, but the memory wars show no sign of abating. In France, there is still no museum of colonisation, nor of the worlds born of slavery and colonisation. All that Sarkozy promises as his cultural legacy is the first national museum of French history, due to open in 2015. To reassert national narratives of the past at a time when there is increasing recognition of the transnational nature of history and memory seems profoundly retrograde. It is evident that colonialism and its afterlives will play little, if any, role in Sarkozy's plans. (source: UK Guardian)
1931 - Visit to the Exposition Coloniale