A Chinese Exhibit showcased photography in a section dubbed “This Is Africa”, which juxtaposed images of wild African animals with black African people, that caused an uproar for its racist connotations.
The Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan included side-by-side photographs from photographer Yu Huiping of animals and people displaying similar expressions. One pair included a young boy and a howling chimpanzee, each photographed with their mouths agape. Another set paired a man and a lion, both gnashing their teeth.
The section’s pictures, which were apparently meant to celebrate the harmony between man and nature were taken down after massive complaints the exhibit’s curator said in a statement. African students studying in China complained to their university deans while others petitioned their embassies, according to students and professionals in these circles.
“It’s not shocking. Africans are not strangers to racism here in China or elsewhere. But it is sad that despite deepening economic connections and interactions between Chinese and Africans, there’s still clearly so much racism and lack of cultural understanding,” says Zahra Baitie, a Ghanaian master’s student at Tsinghua University studying global affairs to Quartz Africa.
Mr. Yu, who is an award-winning photographer and vice chairman of the Hubei Photographers Association and has visited Africa more than 20 times where he got the material for his exhibition, has so far not commented on the backlash.
A curator at the exhibit, Wang Yuejun, said the decision to hang the photos of people and animals together was his own idea, and not that of Mr. Yu. “The target of the exhibition is mainly a Chinese audience,” Wang said in a statement, adding that comparisons between people and animals are common in China and often a compliment. Wang said many Chinese people relate to their animal familiars assigned by the Chinese zodiac and “in Chinese proverbs, animals are always used for admiration and compliment.”
Once it was brought to his attention, Wang said “putting the photos of African tribes people and animals together hurt the feelings of the African tribes people,” and to “show respect for our African friends’ opinions,” the offending pictures were removed.
Casual racism is common in China, it is a newer global influence and one of Africa’s largest trading partner, meaning greater interaction with foreigners and more instances of racial missteps such as:
1. WeChat, China’s most popular mobile messaging app, apologized that its translation software was rendering the Chinese words for “hei laowai”, or “black foreigner,” into English was “nigger.”
2. In 2016 the makers of Qiaobi laundry detergent were criticized for an advertisement that depicted a black man being washed with the product, only to turn into a light-skinned Chinese man.
3. In 2015, promotional posters in China for the film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” depicted John Boyega, a black British actor, smaller than he appeared on similar posters in other countries.
4. Over the summer China’s state news agency published a video during a border standoff with India featuring an offensive parody of a Sikh man, complete with a turban and fake beard
More than 141,000 people visited the exhibit, which opened just before China’s week-long National Day holiday before it was taken down. In fact, before viewers complained about the photos, the president of the prestigious China Photographic Publishing House, praised the photographer for “capturing the vitality of primitive life,” in a since-deleted social media post, according to the Washington Post.
This initial reaction as well as the comments by the curator Wang Yuejun show that although the photo exhibition was removed the racial undertones for why the exhibit was racist to begin with may not have been understood. This could only mean that racial instances such as these will unfortunately continue to occur.