School of Arts

Story of “Man in the Zoo” Discussed in Seminar

The Drama and Performance Studies programme within the School of Arts recently hosted a seminar on the award-winning documentary “Ota Benga: Human at the Zoo”, the story of a Congolese man who was kidnapped from his homeland and taken to the United States of America (USA) where he was exhibited with monkeys.

The film’s director, Professor Niyi Coker, a visiting academic from the University of Missouri, USA, discussed the research and making of his film during the seminar which was held at the Howard College campus.

The film narrates the historical phenomenon of American Human Exhibitions and in particular, the 1904 story of a Congolese Batwa man named Ota Benga, pejoratively referred to by Europeans as a ‘pygmy’ and how he was removed from Central Africa and brought to St. Louis for exhibition at the World’s Fair as evidence of an ‘inferior species’.

At the end of the fair, Ota Benga was sent to New York City’s Bronx Zoo where he was housed with primates and displayed with monkeys as the ‘missing link’ between human and apes.

In the eyes of his colonial captors, he served as living proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Dubious Western intellectuals convinced the public, through their application of racist science that on the African continent exists a lower and insignificant mammalian species.

‘About a decade ago, I visited the World’s Fair Pavilion in Saint Louis Missouri where for the first time I learned that Africans were exhibited as part of an anthropological experiment on the earliest stages of human evolution. It was here that I encountered the story of Ota Benga. This was to become the beginning of my journey in the creation of a documentary film that would query the climate that normalised the exhibition of Africans,’ explained Prof Coker.

This open seminar focused on Coker’s research, his encounters and the road leading to the creation of this documentary film.

Coker, during the seminar, even spoke about venturing into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), meeting with the Batwa people, marvelling at their dwelling and lifestyles and ultimately directing them in the film. He described the Batwa people as ‘humble and welcoming.’ Coker screened the film for the Batwa people in their language, cementing the history of their fellow kinsman Ota Benga.

Audiences were treated to snippets of the film with discussions centred on racism, colonialism and language.

Coker is also on a special visit to UKZN’s Drama and Performance Studies discipline where he is guest directing a specially conceptualised production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Raisin in the Sun”. The play represented UKZN at the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown as part of the prestigious NAF Student Festival.

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