On exhibit at the Hubei Provincial Museum is a photo series meant to celebrate the harmony between man and nature, as captured by a photographer and businessman during his travels to Africa over the past decade. The exhibition, “This is Africa,” includes the typical shots of elephants, cheetahs, and sunsets over the savanna, but makes one crucial miscalculation. A section titled, “One’s heart makes one’s appearance” features portraits of African children and adults next to animals.
In one, a photo of an elderly man is placed next to that of a monkey. In another, the image of a young African man looking over his shoulder sits next to a photo of a cheetah in the same pose. A child with an open mouth is placed next to a gorilla. Among photos of the exhibit circulating African student groups in China is one of Chinese children posing underneath the image, making similar expressions. The student who shared the photos asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by immigration officials.
After receiving complaints from the African community, the museum removed the photos. African students complained to their university deans while others petitioned their embassies, according to students and professionals in these circles. The exhibit has been on display since late last month in honor of China’s eight-day National Day holiday when the museum received some 133,000 (link in Chinese) visitors.
“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.
In a statement sent to Quartz today (Oct. 13), the exhibit’s planner Wang Yuejun said “the museum fully understands” the complaints. He also tried to justify what he sees as a cultural misunderstanding. “The exhibit’s main audience is Chinese. In the Chinese esthetic, comparing people to animals is not offensive,” he said.
Wang pointed that the Chinese have worshiped animal totems and that in the Chinese zodiac system, one’s birth year is associated with an animal. Defending the photographer’s decision to compare the facial features of animals with that of humans, he said. “It’s to remind people that we shouldn’t forget where we come from.”
The photographer, Yu Huiping who is also the chairman of a local construction company, has previously said the goal of his work is to explore the connections between nature and man. Reflecting on his visits to Africa, he told Chinese media ahead of the exhibit’s opening, “I often wonder, how do we build an order and balance the ecology system between human and nature? I think, record, explore, and communicate with the unique perspective and sensitivity of a photographer.”
This isn’t the first time that racism towards Africans has reared its head in China. WeChat apologized earlier this week after users discovered the app’s translation for hei laowai, or “black foreigner,” into English was “nigger.” Last year, Qiaobi, a home care company famously ran a television ad in which a black man put into a washing machine comes out Asian, thanks to Qiaobi’s extra strong detergent.
Not everyone believes the exhibit should be taken so seriously. Sam Haguru, a teacher who tried to go see the exhibit after the photos had already been taken down, says that while he disagreed with the exhibit, it shouldn’t color people’s perceptions of the entire country.
“China is a great country and an individual’s mistake should not be used to castigate the whole of China. China remains a second home to me,” he says. “Personally, I have been treated with respect and love by the Chinese people whom I have met.”