ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes

   

Home  ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more) 

Google
 

Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa

whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles

 in both England and France for over five years

 

 

Exhibiting "Others" in the West

By Krista A. Thompson

Spring 1998

The tradition of exhibiting people of color in Western societies has existed since the earliest encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations in the New World and in Africa. Indeed, on his return to Spain after his first voyage to the New World in 1492, Columbus brought several Arawaks to Queen Isabella's court, where one of them remained on display for two years. Exhibiting non-white bodies as a popular practice reached its apogee in the nineteenth century in both Europe and in USA when freak shows--the exhibition of native peoples for public entertainment in circuses, zoos, and museums--became fairly common. 

In USA, in particular, the spectacle of "freaks," "natives," and "savages" became a profitable industry at this time, as epitomized in popular traveling shows like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Barnum and Bailey's Circus. World Expositions were also popular for the display of native bodies. During the expositions "natives" performed various ceremonies, rites, dances, and otherwise went about their (supposed) daily routines (even though they were on the exposition grounds). In other words, cultural "others" were employed to perform their "cultural otherness" for an Anglo-American and European audience. Up to the mid-twentieth century displays of this sort continued.

Live exhibitions were not the only forms of human spectacle; often the dissected and embalmed remains of the "native" body, particularly the skulls, and sexual organs, were also publicly exhibited. Trophy heads, body parts, and other skeletal remains still reside in the collections of many Western museums, like The British Museum and La Musée de l'Homme, France. As recently as 1997, a small natural history museum just outside of Barcelona finally removed a stuffed Bushman from its permanent display cases, after sustained international pressure to do so. The incident strongly suggests that European fascination with exhibiting non-white bodies is not a phenomenon of the distant past.

Saarjite Baartman/ The Hottentot Venus

Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is perhaps the most infamous case of a Khosian body on display. Baartman, who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her physique, particularly her steatopygic appendage, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman's public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor.

The spectacle of Baartman's body, however, continued even after her death at the age of twenty-six. Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating "primitive sexuality" dissected and cast her genitals in wax. Baartman, as far as we know, was the first person of Khosian-descent to be dismembered and displayed in this manner. Anatomist Georges Curvier presented Baartman's dissected labia before the Academie Royale de Medecine, in order to allow them "to see the nature of the labia" (Gilman 235). Curvier and his contemporaries concluded that Baartman's oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women's "primitive sexual appetite." Baartman's genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l'Homme, the institution to which Curvier belonged, long after her death.

This introduction to the history of human displays of people of color demonstrates that cultural difference and "otherness" were visually observed on the "native" body, whether in live human exhibitions or in dissected body parts on public display. Both forms of spectacle often served to promote Western colonial domination by configuring non-white cultures as being in need of discipline, civilization, and industry.


Bibliography

Gilman, Sander L. "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature." Race, Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Chicago, 1986: A classic of cultural criticism, "Race," Writing, and Difference provides a broad introduction to the idea of "race" as a meaningful category in the study of literature and the shaping of critical theory. This collection demonstrates the variety of critical approaches through which one may discuss the complexities of racial "otherness" in various modes of discourse.

Hinsley, Curtis. "The World as Marketplace: Commodification of the Exotic at the World's Colombian Exposition, Chicago, 1893." Exhibiting Cultures. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Ugwu, Catherine. Ed. Let's Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts. 1995.

Wallace, Michelle. "Modernism, Postmodern and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture." Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Ed. Russell Ferguson. 39-50.

Author: Krista A. Thompson, Spring 1998.

*   *   *   *   *

They call me Hottentot Venus - Saartjie Baartman / What is "The Saartjie Project"?  / Who Is Sara Baartman?

*   *   *   *   *

 Behind the Scenes of The Saartjie Project’ (august 2008

 

Inside the Saartjie Project from safidi tyehimba on Vimeo.

*   *   *   *   *

 

Hottentot Venus: A Novel

By Barbara Chase-Riboud

Hottentot Venus is the story of Ssehura, a young Khoisan girl orphaned in 1700s South Africa. Ssehura is renamed Saartjie (which means “little Sarah” in Dutch) by a Dutch Afrikaner who becomes her master. As is Khoisan custom, Sarah is groomed to be more sexually desirable for marriage. Her buttocks are massaged with special ointments to make them swell and her genitalia are stretched to produce the legendary “Hottentot apron,” exaggerated folds of skin. Thus, Sarah is a physical curiosity and a sexual fetish to her white master. He is persuaded by an Englishman to send her to London where she becomes a sideshow sensation. The English gentry is fascinated by her exotic African ethnicity and sexually charged presence making her stuff of legend and myth. Sarah enters the world of circus freak shows and becomes a popular exhibit. .  The “Hottentot Venus,” as she has become known, is the rage of Europe. Yet, beyond the parade of curiosity seekers and perverts, the very real loneliness of this young woman comes through. CopperfieldReview

*   *   *   *   *

African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus  

By Rachel Holmes

A celebrated "human curiosity," exhibited in 1810 in London and Paris for her larger-than-average posterior, the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartmen, is delivered once and for all by Holmes (Scanty Particulars) from the forces of sentimental primitivism, imperialism and scientific racism that so determined her life. Academics will recognize Holmes as one of their own (she is a former professor of English at the universities of London and Sussex); this book is liberally salted with the language of feminist, psychoanalytic and postcolonial theory (here is how Holmes explains Saartjie's susceptibility to exploitation at the hands of men: "[her] relationship with paternalistic figures was shadowed by her unresolved attachment to an idealized father, snatched from her at the point she most needed and respected him, and before she had cause to rebel against him"). But the book is propelled along by the inherent interest of Saartjie's story and Holmes's clear affection for her subject. Particularly close attention is given to Saartjie's declining years and her gruesome posthumous treatment at the hands of French scientist Cuvier, whose macabre fascination with Saartjie inspires some of the book's most engaging prose.— Publishers Weekly

Saartjie Baartman, a young South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 and displayed seminude as she danced suggestively to show off to best effect her ample bottom, earning her the name Hottentot Venus. Her public display and ultimate study by scientists long ago gained her iconic status as a symbol of European fascination with African sexuality. Holmes, author of Scanty Particulars (2003), explores the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1800s, when Europeans were fascinated with the human behind and grappling with notions about race, sex, and colonialism. Holmes draws on press reports, ballads, and advertisements of the day that ridiculed Baartman as well as prominent politician Lord Grenville, who was similarly endowed. Baartman, abused by her manager and the public, attracted the attention of abolitionists, who saw in her a cause celebre to challenge provisions of the British constitution regarding slavery. Using fresh archival research, Holmes offers a definitive portrait of a woman whose remains--on museum display for generations--were only recently returned to South Africa for final burial. This is a probing look at historical racism and sexual exploitation presented through the life of an extraordinary woman.—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues


1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        

Enjoy!

*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *

*   *   *   *   *

 

 

 

 

 

update 9 July 2008

 

 

 

Home  The African World Transitional Writings on Africa

Related files: Thabo Mbeki on  Saartjie Baartman  Sara Story  Hottentot Venus  Exhibiting Others in West  Nobody ever chose to be a slave