Telling Uneasy Stories: El Negro of Banyoles #4

I continue my weekly series here on Black Looks about El Negro of Banyoles, the Southern African man who was stuffed like a human trophy and exhibited in Europe from 1830 to 2000 to amuse Europeans. Last week I received insightful comments from Sokari and Annie about the ‘love’ that Banyoles still says it feels for the cadaver. The residents of that small Catalan town use this ‘love’ to lament the burial of the dead body as they ‘miss’ him. I also touched on how Georgina Gratacos of the Darder Museum in Banyoles laments the burial of her museum’s most entertaining exhibition. I wonder who really gets entertained by staring at a cadaver but as we established last week the body was a site of narratives and contest for domination and history.  Allow me to touch on the issue of authenticity a little bit this week as I tease out more narratives that this body was made to tell.

The issue of authenticity comes into play here since Miss Gratacos still argues that a wooden carving of El Negro would be “insufficient.” This exhibition therefore -in her mind and minds of others- necessitates a real human with an aura of authenticity for exciting entertainment, but presented in a sculptural fashion that can be consumed without anxiety. El Negro’s aura was consumed literally through kitsch items that would be produced until ca. 2002 including dark- chocolate bars modeled after him and other snacks. Banyoles’s popular fascination with him saw the dead body performing in the yearly Banyoles carnivals, stiffly parading the streets of Banyoles atop a parade float. It is almost a risible image because it is too violent for one’s mind to process. But it was not all ridicule, apparently it was also love. T-shirts were made using his image and graffiti was scribbled captioned with the words that translate to, “We love you, El Negro.” The freak became a celebrity and the transmedial repetition of his image and re-fabrication and perpetuation of his aura even through humor and edible kitsch made the Other seem unthreatening thereby editing the Africa-Europe relationship story to a benign abstract idea. Through transmedial repetition of El Negro as a symbol solidified the aforementioned narratives which is just as permanently damaging to the African’s name as the narratives themselves.

The Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria have a saying that, “Wherever one thing stands, another stands by its side.” Following that logic, Europe was also drawing up narratives for itself: the construction of the Savage African with questionable humanity stood, and next to it the construct of the Civilized European with full dignity stood. Perhaps you all can help me understand more narratives that Europe was carving for itself by exhibiting African bodies.

Perhaps here we see one the Civilizer’s earliest instances of assigning a certain language to Africa: Africa was being “civilized” not brutalized because Africans had “tribes” instead of nations and their kings were “chiefs.” The use of this specific belittling language was an abstract narrative with words. It needed to be rooted in a recognizable artefact for “proof.” There would be no better anchor of the narrative than the corporeal exhibition of the African because the body is the beginning of the human experience and indeed the artefact of human life. Thus, the story of the African Savage can be consumed as something the African was born hard-wired to live and die living were it not for the timely benevolence of the modernizing Civilizer.

Those are my thoughts this week and I look forward to next week, to discussing the actual repatriation of this body to Botswana and the interesting ways in which the repatriation brought about more division than healing internationally and also intra-nationally in Botswana. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Donald.