Chinese Museum Pulls Exhibit Comparing Animals to Black People

HONG KONG — A museum in China this week removed a photography exhibit, which juxtaposed images of wild African animals with black African people, after complaints that the display was racist.

A section of the “This Is Africa” exhibit at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan included side-by-side photographs of animals and people displaying similar expressions. One pair included a young boy and a howling chimpanzee, each photographed with their mouths agape. Other sets paired a man and a lion, both gnashing their teeth; and a man and a baboon.

[Video: A video showing a section of the “This Is Africa” exhibit at the Hubei Provincial Museum. Watch on YouTube.]
A video showing a section of the “This Is Africa” exhibit at the Hubei Provincial Museum.
Video by Shanghaiist

The section’s pictures, all made by the photographer Yu Huiping, were taken down after complaints by Africans, including students living in China, the exhibit’s curator said in a statement.

Casual racism is common in China, a diverse country of more than one billion people that after decades of relative isolation is now a world power. That new global influence, which includes being Africa’s largest trading partner, has meant greater interaction with foreigners and a resulting increase in racist missteps.

On Friday, WeChat, China’s most popular mobile messaging app, apologized that its translation software was rendering the Chinese words for “black foreigner” as a racial slur in English. Last year, 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.

[Video: A Chinese ad depicting a black man being transformed into a pale-skinned Asian. Watch on YouTube.]
A Chinese ad depicting a black man being transformed into a pale-skinned Asian.
Video by Funny Funny

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.

The photography exhibit in Hubei is expected to end this week. The state news media reported that so far, more than 170,000 people had visited the exhibit, which went up during a national holiday.

Mr. Yu, an award-winning photographer and vice chairman of the Hubei Photographers Association, has visited Africa more than 20 times. He did not return several calls seeking comment.

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,” Mr. Wang said in a statement, adding that comparisons between people and animals are common in China and often a compliment.

Mr. 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, Mr. Wang said, that “putting the photos of African tribespeople and animals together hurt the feelings of the African tribespeople,” and to “show respect for our African friends’ opinions,” the offending pictures were removed.

On social media, the exhibit received mixed reviews. Edward E. Duke, a Nigerian Instagram user, posted video of the exhibit, which was first published by the website Shanghaiist. The museum, he wrote in a post that was later removed, “put pictures of a particular race next to wild animals why?”

A Chinese user of Weibo, a popular blogging platform, said she was blown away by the photos in that section.

“When Yu Huiping’s photos were projected on the big screen, I was shocked by the children’s gaze and the primal state of the animals,” wrote the user, identified as Ailuxixi, adding that she liked the section “very much.”

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NYT > Asia Pacific

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