Exposition Universelle

Village Nègre

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 9

In 1889 France marked the centennial of the start of the French Revolution with the Exposition Universelle. This World Fair looked to showcase French achievements to the world through various exhibits and attractions.

The chief attraction of the Exposition Universelle was the Eiffel Tower, built specifically for the fair and, at the time, the world’s tallest structure.

While today history focuses on the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, another lesser-known exhibit garnered exceptional attention at the time - the Village Nègre.

This large colonial exhibit displayed over four hundred indigenous people from a host of European colonies - including Algeria, Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Malaysia and Senegal.

Over the course of the six months it was open, the Village Nègre drew over twenty-eight million spectators.

The exhibition, held a stone's throw away from the Eiffel Tower, comprised six smaller ‘villages’ in which these people ate, slept and worked.

Spectators were treated to a largely manufactured display of ‘tribal’ rituals, infighting and ‘exotic’ dances - all of which proved extremely popular.

Spectators often included ‘scientists’ who used exhibitions like these to prove the racial inferiority of darker-skinned peoples. This so-called ‘scientific racism’ alongside the spectacle of indigenous races going through their ‘primitive’ lives helped fuel a sense of superiority among spectators and the wider Western population.

These exhibits, or human zoos, were common across Europe and the United States - taking place in cities such as London, Barcelona, Hamburg, Milan, and New York.

The goal of these exhibitions was to promulgate the idea of the civilised versus the uncivilised. Like other human exhibitions in the West, the Village Nègre was promoted as an authentic representation of life in the ‘savage lands’ outside of Europe.

Organisers of the Exposition Universelle marketed themselves as anthropologists to provide a sense of authenticism. Spectators from all walks of life believed they were seeing genuine depictions of ‘primitive’ cultures.

In reality, these exhibitions were manufactured with little care for cultural customs and served only to create caricatures and stereotypes of these indigenous people and cultures.

Decorations, costumes and accessories were all created to demean, defile and destroy authentic indigenous culture. In essence, the people within the Village Nègre looked and performed as Europeans saw necessary to push their fantasy of superiority.

The purpose of these Fairs was twofold; to perpetuate the myth of racial hierarchy across Europe and to serve as colonial propaganda to justify European imperialism.

More recently, evidence of the indigenous response to these exhibits has come to light, which we will touch on in a future edition.