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Paris savages, a novel, and an accompanying exegesis : “Human zoos” and their aftermath : an examination of the archive and the place for fiction


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Johnson, KJ 2019 , 'Paris savages, a novel, and an accompanying exegesis : “Human zoos” and their aftermath : an examination of the archive and the place for fiction', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This dissertation examines an aspect of colonial history little known outside academic circles: the ethnographic exhibition, predominantly in Europe and America, of living people promoted as being from far-away lands, “exotic” or “savage”. Although research in the last two decades by Poignant, Blanchard, Boëtsch, Bancel, Thode-Arora, Qureshi and others has gathered important historical material about such exhibitions and their role in the construction of racial stereotypes, there remain significant gaps in the record – namely, as Qureshi describes, the paucity of “sources that might be used to reconstruct performers’ motivations and perceptions” (9). There also exist gaps in the creative literature, with only a handful of novels having been published that refer to this subject, although not in an Australian context. Such novels include Dominic Smith’s Bright and Distant Shores and Didier Daeninckx’s Cannibale. The focus of this dissertation is the exhibition and representation of Australian Aboriginal performers in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century when “human zoos” became mass entertainment. The thesis explores how fiction informed by postcolonial theory might be used to highlight knowledge gaps, challenge racial constructions, and reposition the performers’ possible experiences more centrally. Through a novel, Paris Savages, it investigates imaginative ways of deconstructing the version of history that exists in the archives, particularly constructed ideas of the objectified “other” as “inferior” and “savage”. With a focus on three Badtjala performers in Europe, Paris Savages attempts to re-historicise this historical episode by inviting the reader to imagine a more balanced telling. Without first-person performer accounts, it is, of course, impossible to know what the Aboriginal performers each made of this experience. However, I argue that an informed and overtly imaginative approach, inclusive of Aboriginal characters, is a necessary step towards contesting the racial stereotypes the shows produced for, without such attempts at “rewriting race and racism, not merely representing, but disturbing [it]” (Hopper), societies born of colonialism will remain locked in their limited histories. Indeed, without re-examining stories that have been half told, “the ‘field’ of the genuinely post-colonial can never actually exist” (Slemon 79).

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Johnson, KJ
Keywords: ethnographic exhibition, representation, fiction
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