The Human Zoo

One of the most talked-about exhibitions at the moment is on at the new musée du quai Branly in Paris: Human Zoos. The museum specialises in ethnography and the dialogue of cultures. The focus of this current exhibition is the prevalence in Europe and elsewhere of representatives of other human cultures in our zoos. The exhibition traces the history of the way the West looked at the non-West during the colonial era and beyond

The invention of the savage unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world in circus numbers, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to increase until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

Putamayo Indians, Ricudo and Omarindo

The quai Branly exhibition reminded me of the two Putamayo Indians the Irish parliamentarian Roger Casement (1864-1916) brought back from the Amazon in 1910. They were exhibited in London as “living curiosities”.

Roger Casement with Putumayo tribespeople in the Amazon basin,

Casement had previously investigated and exposed abuses in the Belgian Congo Free State. In Africa he encountered Joseph Conrad, author of the best-known account of colonial atrocity, Heart of Darkness. Sent to South America to investigate abuses on the rubber plantations of the British-directed Peruvian Amazon Company, or PAC, Casement returned with two Indians whose faces resonate still, a hundred years later.

Huitoto tribesmen, Ricudo and Omarindo

Knighted for his work on behalf of the Amazonian Indians, Casement was hanged for treason following the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Controversy still surrounds the authenticity of what are known as Casement’s “Black Diaries”, wherein he details his homosexual encounters.

Dr Lesley Wylie, Lecturer in Latin American Studies in the School of Modern Languages, University of Leicester, discovered the photos recently during her research for a book on the Putumayo, a border region in the Amazon. Her research was published in the August 2010 edition of Irish Studies Review. The photographs of the two Huitoto tribesmen were taken by John Thomson, a pioneering travel photographer and photojournalist, born in Edinburgh, who had made his name in the Far East, where he spent the best part of ten years from 1862-1872.

King Mongkut of Siam, Rama IV, photographed by John Thompson in 1865-1866

According to Wylie, the two Huitoto were from La Chorrera, a disputed territory harboring a secretive rubber plantation along the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. The two were called Omarino and Ricudo. Omarino had been ‘presented’ to Casement for payment of a pair trousers and a shirt while Ricudo, a married man of 19, had been separated from his wife after Casement ‘won him’ in a game of cards. On 1 August 1911, the two Amazonian youths were on the front page of The Daily News. They are reported to have said: “London is very beautiful, but the great river and the forest, where the birds fly, is more beautiful. One day we shall go back.”

Survival International estimates that 90 percent of the Amazon’s indigenous groups were wiped out during the rubber boom. The Huitoto tribe currently numbers about 3000 survivors. Casement considered sending his two “living curiosities” to boarding school, but thought better of it and left the two men in the care of the British consul in Iquitos, Peru. They disappear from history at that point.

The quai Branly Human Zoos exhibition in Paris is described here in French:




Abdeslam Khelil (1942 –


Abdeslam Khelil, title unknown

In 1976 I taught for a year at the lycée de Ghardaïa, six hundred kilometres south of Algiers, in the Sahara desert. The M’Zab, of which Ghardaïa is the capital, is a group of five towns and their attendant oases, settled by the Mozabite sect, variously described as coming out of Persia or as Berber. I was the only native English speaker on the oasis – apart from some Scottish oil technicians who pitched up in the hotel the odd weekend. I lived in a new white house with a roof terrace, no furniture and a leatherette box of the latest punk records covered in a fine veil of sand. I played Patti Smith’s Horses that year, loud across the desert.

Abdeslam Khelil, l'enfant et l'infini

On one of my escapes north to Algiers during the school holidays I must have stumbled into the photo studio of Abdeslam Khelil at No. 2 rue Didouche Mourad. It was a ramshackle shop on a wide, elegant avenue in la ville française. I was twenty-one years of age, had read my Camus and André Gide, and was flush with Boumedienne’s dinars, useless outside the borders of the socialist republic.

Abdeslam Khelil, Fata

Born in 1942 on the oasis of Ouargla, Khelil still lives in Algiers, though he has long abandoned his camera. A search of the web reveals very little about this Algerian photographer. Many of his portraits were taken half a century ago in those desert towns that I came to like so well. Looking at these dog-eared pictures again recently, I recalled the smell of the carpet shops and of the goat-hair gandura I used to wear to school on those cold winter mornings. I remember the old slave quarters of Ben Isguen, Melika haute, the queen of the pentapolis, the women out among the graves and the dust storms blowing in from the south.

Abdeslam Khelil, title unknown

The lycée was near the camel mart, the landscape dusty, the girls in my classes fully covered except for a triangle around one eye. When they entered they removed their head covering and sat at the front. As the school year advanced there were fewer and fewer of them in seconde and première. They were married off.

It is a pity Abdeslam Khelil’s photographs of the Algerian desert are not better known. All that pre-mall world must have disappeared now, it brings on the long backward glance. The photos are stamped by the photographer, some of them with pencilled titles. The day I bought them in Algiers I must have wandered down to the port where there were wonderful old-style French restaurants with a colonial touch to the service. I would have caught the night bus to Laghouat and slept fitfully. The coffee at the bus station was thick and hot, the flatbread swollen with steam. I might have gone to find the little hotel in El Oued where Oscar Wilde holed up with Bosie, where Gide walked out into the dunes and got lost.

Abdeslam Khelil, title unknown