Invention of the Savage

The Invention of the Savage Exhibition at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris.

Animal advocates know the spectacle of exhibiting animals in a zoo or in any other form of display is an affront to the animals’ welfare and their intrinsic value as individual sentient beings with moral and legal rights. Zoos, aquariums, roadside attractions, etc., are examples of institutionalised speciesism in which we (the human animal) exert power and control over all other species. Speciesism is often explained as being on a continuum of prejudice along with sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc.

The Invention of the Savage exhibit at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris demonstrates this continuum of prejudice and where it intersects on racial and colonial lines; however, it fails, notwithstanding much reference to the ‘other,’ to recognise the speciesist exploitation of animals alongside the various individuals and groups of people who were also put on display in one way or another.

This is a great shame because, otherwise, it is an incredibly powerful and moving exhibition which explains well how we construct racism and institutionalise in our culture. I reproduce here the museum’s brief description of the path taken by a visitor through the exhibit.

The first Act (‘Discovering the Other’) features the 15th and 18th Century arrival of exotic people in Europe, and their consideration as ‘strange foreigners’, categorized in four archetypes throughout the exhibition: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.

The second act (‘Freaks & Exotics’) shows how early 19th Century brings the emergence of a new genre: ethnic shows. They first develop in theater cafés before spreading to larger and larger venues and being included in exhibitions and circuses. This process of staging the difference blurs the difference between the deformed and the foreign: physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities are first staged, and then become the focus of performances.

The third act (‘Spectacle of Difference’) reveals that between 1870 and World War Two, many venues start specializing in ethnic performance as the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey in Madison Square, the Paris Folies Bergères or the famous Panoptikum in Berlin. It is the time of the professionalization of the activity, and exotic performance morphs into mass entertainment. Visitors are introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true genre professionals: Aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women’, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers or oriental belly dancers, but also the first black clown in France called “Chocolat” and drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec and legendary Buffalo Bill, whose show revolves on the native American Indian archetype, which forever brands the Far West imagery. Unbeknownst to them, audiences encounter made-up ‘savages’. Generally paid, the exhibited actively participate in building the imagery.

The fourth act (‘Staging’) shows how reconstructed ethnic villages, zoos, colonial and international fairs, science and spectacle merge in multiple places. Exotic peoples and physical strangeness are brought together on stage as if they both equally represented the realm of abnormality. Excess, grandeur and ephemeral reconstructions characterize this section of the exhibition with posters and painted dioramas, film ,screenings, photographs, automates and postcards. The practice starts in public gardens, following the one in Paris which, in 1877, is the first in Europe to exhibit tribes and groups. Such exhibitions lead to the invention of travelling Villages, like Carl Hagenbeck’s. Major tours start in 1874, and in 1878 until the 30s, international and colonial fairs include an exotic dimension to their programs.

In the Menagerie by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (1894)

Reference to animals occur periodically throughout the exhibit but speciesism is not addressed as such nor is the ethical question raised about exhibiting animals. However, there are some powerful examples of animals alongside exhibited ‘savages’ where, for example, Africans were brought with elephants and displayed together in zoos.

It was exciting to see in the exhibit Paul Friedrich Meyerheim’s painting, ‘In the Menagerie,’ included as it demonstrates well how an animal keeper displays an African man carrying a crocodile on his shoulders with an elephant standing behind them.

The most important understanding I came away with from the ‘Invention of the Savage’ was how, in the course of a few hundred years, individual non-white people were considered at Royal Courts to be ‘pets’ and ‘novelty’ people. This led to groups, indeed families, of natives put on public display and white people paid an admission to see them at international exhibitions and in zoos. This transition from individuals to groups contributed toward embedding into Western culture an imperialist and white supremacist worldview. A socially constructed problem of the making during last few hundred years which we continue to struggle with today.