Tuesday, January 17, 2012

VENUS: The Real Saartjie Baartman

Of the unknown number of African women who were exhibited as "Venus Hottentot" in early 19th century Europe, the best known today is Saartjie Baartman, also known as "Sarah" or "Sara" Baartman. Born near Capetown in South Africa to a Khosian family, she was orphaned in a commando raid and became a servant to a Dutch farmer.  His brother persuaded her that she could become rich in England, and he took her there in 1810.

She was exhibited throughout England, to both upper and lower class audiences, perhaps sometimes as a dancer, but it is more generally believed she was placed in variations of the freak shows that survived in American carnivals.  (The movie The Elephant Man suggests what these were like.) "Supposed savages from faraway lands were a mainstay of such exhibitions, and the Hottentot Venus surpassed them all in renown," wrote naturalist Stephen Jay Gould in his influential essay published in 1980 in his book, The Flamingo's Smile.  

(Gould also explains that 19th century Europeans called the hunter-gatherers of this South African region "Bushmen," and the pastoralist herders "Hottentots."  Later both groups became known by a variation of what they called themselves, such as  Khoi-San.) 

Why was Baartman such an attraction?  There are many speculations, but the most basic fact is that few people from sub-Saharan Africa had been seen in England before.  Cultural prejudices plus the exaggerations by which freak shows make their living tended to condition what audiences "saw," especially in viewing people who lived in places and societies considered primitive.  Scientists of the time contributed to the imagery by theorizing that the Khosian peoples, being small of stature, were lower on the evolutionary ladder, more akin to monkeys and orangutans. 

But the gimmick used to attract audiences was that Baartman was not only a black African but a black African woman.  Audiences were invited to view her as ugly, and marvel that other Africans thought she was beautiful (their Venus.)  She was exhibited in tight, flesh-colored clothing, and her sexuality was emphasized.  The exhibition played up and played into fantasies common to "civilized" Europeans concerning unfamiliar "primitives" (including Native Americans in earlier centuries.)   The sense of the exotic and the wild projected onto Baartman and others are concepts that playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explores in this play.

Physical differences were emphasized and exaggerated, such as Baartman's buttocks, despite the fact that she weighed less than 100 pounds, and even Cuvier's notes remark on her graceful proportions (perhaps the inspiration for Parks' creation of the Baron Docteur and his passion for Venus.)  Many such differences (cultural as well as physical) are seen as exotic before being appropriated (some mention the fashion for bustles, which gave European women a bigger caboose.)  But African American women still face being stereotyped in this way, as in the lampooning of the appropriately named tennis star, Venus Williams.  Recently a Republican politician had to apologize for joking about Michele Obama on this basis. 

As in the play, there was a trial that considered whether Baartman was brought to England as "property" and was held against her will in poor conditions.  The slave trade had been outlawed in 1807, though slavery itself was not outlawed in England until 1833.  There is controversy surrounding the trial, which took place only months after she arrived in England, but the court's conclusion was that she was performing of her own free will.

In this play, Venus is taken to Paris by the scientist "Baron Docteur," and while she is being studied there, they form a relationship.  The Baron however is fictional.  The real Saartjie Baartman was taken to France and was studied by noted scientists, including the naturalist Georges Cuvier, but unlike in the play she was taken there by an animal trainer, and was exhibited in worse conditions than in England.  She is said to have become an alcoholic and a prostitute, before dying of an unknown inflammatory ailment.  It was 1815, just five years after she left Africa.  Her exact age was unknown, but probably between 25 and 35.

After her death she was autopsied and the results published.  The Mussee de l'Homme in Paris exhibited her skeleton, genitals and brain for more than a century, along with a cast of her body.  They were removed from view in the 1970s or 1980s, and returned to South Africa at the request of President Nelson Mandela in 2002.  Her remains were then buried near her birthplace.

Baartman Centre for Women & Children
Saartjie Baartman became a symbol of pride in South Africa.  That country's first environmental protection ship was named after her, and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, a refuge for victims of domestic violence, was opened in Capetown in 1999.

Her story has been told internationally in a variety of ways.  Gould's influential essay was followed by other essays and books, including the 2007 African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus by Rachel Holmes.  Barbara Chase-Riboud published a fictionalized biography, Hottentot Venus.

Her story has been interpreted in virtually every artistic form.  "The Venus Hottentot" is perhaps the most famous poem by noted African American poet Elizabeth Alexander (whose "Praise Song for the Day" was commissioned for the 2008 Inaugural of President Barak Obama.)  Poet M.K. Asante wrote "Ghetto Booty: The Hottentot Remix," and South African poet Diana Ferrus wrote "A Poem for Sarah Baartman."  Characters based on Baartman were featured in a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a romantic novel by Chris Karsten, and a steampunk science fiction novel by Paul Di Filippo.

Besides this play, her story is explored in Lydia R. Diamond's "Voyeurs de Venus" and a project by Canadian performance artist Mara Verna.  Composer Hendrik Hofmeyr wrote an opera entitled Saartjie which premiered by the Cape Town Opera in 2010.  Hofmeyr relates a different variation of her story: that she had danced for sailors in Capetown and seeing their response, thought she would do well in England.  In this version of her history, she was somewhat older, and had more control over her performances in England, consciously playing on the British desire to see her as an exotic for considerable profit.  Once she left for Paris, however, his story conforms to the usual one.
from Venus Noire

In film, there's a 1999 documentary  (The Life and Times of Sara Baartman), and a 2010 French feature (Venus Noire).

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