Campfire in a Zoo (2019) is a puppet animation installation
that explores the complexities of exhibiting and being seen. It is based
on the family story of Markku Laakso’s great-grandparents, who with other Sámis toured Germany in 1930 as part of ethnographic exhibitions known also as human zoos.
Human zoos were educational, anthropological displays that often incorporated scientific ideas of the day. In an age before cinema or tourism, they were the only way for ordinary people to encounter live indigenous people. From the 1880s onwards, groups of indigenous people toured around Europe in so-called human caravans. The tours were planned carefully, and the caravans were furnished with appropriate artefacts, clothes and utensils; the Sámi travelled with reindeer and dogs. Because the shows were so popular, they were often held in zoos.
Later the practice of putting indigenous people on display as specimens came under criticism for constituting minority abuse. Racial theories were in crisis and the popularity of human zoos declined. These ethnographic expositions nevertheless had far-reaching social repercussions; they also affected the status of the Sámi in the North. More recently human zoos have come to be studied from a cultural encounter perspective. Indigenous people joined the caravans because they wanted to see the world and have new experiences. The Sámi even felt they were cultural ambassadors of a kind. In the exhibitions, the colonial perspective merged with personal experience.
Dahlsten and Laakso use cinematic means to put distance between themselves and the story of Laakso’s ancestors. Using puppets they can assume the roles of Simo, Ella Stiina and Veikko in the German zoos. The “truthfulness” at the core of the ethnographic exhibitions required that everything had to be “authentic”. Campfire in a Zoo responds to this demand by creating an entire fictitious world that is at once genuine and staged, just like the Sámi in the zoos.
Annika Dahlsten (b. 1975 Vaasa) and Markku Laakso (b. 1970 Enontekiö) are visual artists based in Turku who use photography, digital media and performance in their collaborative works. They have exhibited in Gothenburg, Medellin in Columbia, London and Berlin. In her solo work, Dahlsten is visual artist and animation artist, Laakso is a painter known best for his pictures featuring Elvis.
Acknowledgements: Ministry of Education and Culture, Arts Promotion Centre Finland, City of Turku, Turku Art Society, and Arts Council of Varsinais-Suomi.