An exhibit in a Chinese museum titled “This is Africa” recently stirred controversy due to a series of photos pairing portraits of Africans with images of animals. These photos were taken down on October 11 after visitors accused the series of being racist, although the museum’s curator refuted this accusation. Two of our Observers in China – one who is African, the other Chinese – gave us their take on this exhibit.
The show opened on September 28 in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, eastern China. It was made up of about 100 photos, taken by several different photographers.
Photo shared by the museum’s curator, Wang Yuejun.
Twelve photos by photographer Yu Huiping, which juxtaposed portraits of Africans with wild animals – including monkeys, lions, and giraffes – drew outrage from many viewers, notably within the local African community but also abroad after the images were posted on social media.
Some of the photos that drew criticism. Photos taken at the museum by one of our Observers in early October.
The controversy blew up after a Nigerian Instagram user posted photos of the exhibit, which have since been deleted. At least two petitions then circulated online, demanding that the exhibit be closed and that the museum apologise.
'Nobody wants to see their photo compared with that of an animal'
Franck W. (not his real name) is from Ivory Coast and lives in Wuhan. He visited the exhibit in early October.
These photos, in which you see photos of men and of animals side by side, only made up 10 or maybe 15 percent of the photos in the exhibit. But I found them shocking because nobody wants to see their photo compared with that of an animal. There was no caption, no text to explain what we were looking at. So I couldn’t help but take these images at face value, and I share the opinion of those who say it is racist.
I know other foreigners here who were just as shocked as I was and who would like to see an apology from the museum. But they haven’t dared to say this publicly, since there isn’t really much freedom of expression in China. So we mostly discuss this on the online platform WeChat.
The museum’s reply: a reference to 'Chinese tradition'
Faced with numerous accusations of racism, the museum’s curator, Wang Yuejun, defended himself by explaining that the photographer, Yu Huiping, had visited Africa many times and that he had deep affection for the continent.
He added that the series of photos was meant to draw a parallel with the Chinese zodiac, in which people are associated with animals depending on their year of birth. There are twelve animals in the zodiac: the rat, the tiger, the dragon, the monkey, the snake, the pig, etc. He added that comparing people to animals was common practice in China, and that it was usually meant as a compliment.
He also added that the goal of the series was to celebrate the harmonious coexistence of humans and animals in Africa.
Nevertheless, the curator had the controversial photos taken down on October 11 – though the exhibit was scheduled to last until October 17 – in order, he said, to respect the point of view of African visitors, which he believed diverged from the point of view of Chinese visitors due to “cultural differences". No apologies were made by either the curator or the museum.
“I don’t think these photos were racist”
Lu Haitao (not his real name) is one of Observers in Beijing. He is Chinese.
Even if I don’t think you should compare people to animals, I don’t think these photos were racist. I don’t believe that was the intention of the museum: they really did seem to be referencing the 12 animals of the zodiac, which are meant to reflect people’s temperaments.
This was also the opinion of Chinese media outlets. Some of them made the point that China did not colonise Africa in the past, and that this explains why Chinese people aren’t necessarily “politically correct” compared to Europeans, for example, because we don’t have the same feelings of guilt.
These explanations, however, did not convince our Ivorian Observer in Wuhan.
“I don’t think the zodiac explanation holds water”
Even if it’s true that men are compared to animals in the Chinese calendar, I don’t think that this explanation holds water. Some of the animals in the exhibit, like the giraffe, are not part of the Chinese zodiac!
Recently, there was a commercial for a Chinese detergent brand. It showed a black man going into a washing machine, and coming out light-skinned. So, we get the feeling that black people are being targeted lately…
That said, this incident should not be taken to mean that all Chinese people are racist. There are racist acts once in a while, but, at least for me, it’s been a long time since I have been a victim of racism here. You get strange comments or questions, but these come from a place of ignorance, not racism.
FRANCE 24 contacted the museum’s curator, but didn't receive any response; we were not able to reach the photographer, Yu Huiping, either. Therefore, we do not have the answer to a lingering question: which of the two men’s idea was it to link the images of men and animals? There have been conflicting accounts about this point in media reports.