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La Belle Hottentot, a 19th century French print of Baartman
Near Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape, Dutch Empire
|Died||December 29, 1815 (aged 25–26)|
|Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa|
|Other names||Hottentot Venus|
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (December 2013)|
La Belle Hottentot, a 19th century French print of Baartman
Near Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape, Dutch Empire
|Died||December 29, 1815 (aged 25–26)|
|Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa|
|Other names||Hottentot Venus|
Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815) (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—"Hottentot" as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and "Venus" in reference to the Roman goddess of love.
According to popular history, Saartjie Baartman (more commonly known as Sarah or Sara Baartman) was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited. Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord. In 1814, after Dunlop's death, she traveled to Paris. With two consecutive showmen, Henry Taylor and S. Reaux, she amused onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. She was subjected to examination by Georges Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. In post-Napoleonic France, sideshows like the Hottentot Venus lost their appeal. Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of an undetermined inflammatory disease in December 1815. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, then displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia until she was buried.
Saartjie Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She was orphaned in a commando raid. Saartjie is the diminutive form of Sarah; in Cape Dutch the use of the diminutive form commonly indicates familiarity, endearment or contempt. Her birth name is unknown.
Baartman may have been a slave of a Dutch farmer named Peter Cezar near Cape Town, which had recently come under British control. Peter Cezar's brother, Hendrik Cezar, took an interest in Baartman while visiting his farm and, together with Alexander Dunlop, a military surgeon with a sideline in supplying showmen in Britain with animal specimens, suggested she travel to England for exhibition. Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned the purpose of the trip. She left for London in 1810.
Baartman was exhibited first in London, entertaining people because of her "exotic" origin and by showing what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. Hendrik Cezar and Alexander Dunlop were the ones who brought her to London in 1810. However, Dunlop discontinued his involvement while Cezar placed her on exhibition in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly Circus. She had large buttocks (steatopygia) and was rumored to have the elongated labia of some Khoisan women, which were written about by earlier travelers such as François Levaillant. To quote historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, "The labia minora, or inner lips, of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vulva when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin". Baartman never allowed this trait to be exhibited while she was alive, and an account of her appearance in London in 1810 makes it clear that she was wearing a garment, although a tight-fitting one.
Her exhibition in London, scant years after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, created a scandal. An abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association – the equivalent of a charity or pressure group – conducted a newspaper campaign for her release. The showman associated with her exhibition, Hendrick Cezar in an answer protested that Baartman was entitled to earn her living by this means: "...has she not as good a right to exhibit herself as an Irish Giant or a Dwarf?". Cezar presented a contract written in Dutch, since that was the only language Baartman understood, in which she "agreed" to perform domestic duties for her master as well as be viewed in public in England and Ireland "just as she was." In return, she was promised twelve guineas a year. The African Association took the matter to court and on 24 November 1810 at the Court of King's Bench the Attorney-General began the attempt 'to give her liberty to say whether she was exhibited by her own consent'. In support he produced two affidavits in court. The first, from a Mr Bullock of Liverpool Museum, was intended to show Baartman had been brought to Britain by persons who referred to her as if she were property. The second, by the Secretary of the African Association, described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited and also gave evidence of coercion. Baartman was then questioned before an attorney in Dutch, in which she was fluent, via interpreters. She stated that she in fact was not under restraint, did not get sexually abused, and that she came to London on her own free will. She did not wish to return to her family and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The case was therefore dismissed. She was questioned for three hours without anyone connected with her exhibition being present; however the conditions under which she made these statements are suspect, because her declaration directly contradicts accounts of her exhibitions made by Zachary Macaulay of the African Institution and other eyewitnesses. A written contract was also produced by Dunlop, though this is considered by some modern commentators as a legal subterfuge.
The publicity given by the court case increased Baartman's popularity as an exhibit. She later toured other parts of Britain and visited Ireland. On 1 December 1811 Baartman was christened at Manchester Cathedral.
Baartman was sold to a Frenchman, who took her to his country. She was in France from around September 1814. An animal trainer, S. Réaux, exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. French naturalists, among them Georges Cuvier, head keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, visited her. She was the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roi, where she was examined in March 1815: as Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier, a younger brother of Georges, reported, "she was obliging enough to undress and to allow herself to be painted in the nude." This was not literally true: although by his standards she appeared to be naked, in accordance with her own cultural norms of modesty throughout these sessions she wore a small apron-like garment which concealed her genitalia. She steadfastly refused to remove this even when offered money by one of the attending scientists. It has been alleged that once her novelty had worn thin with Parisians, she began to drink heavily and support herself with prostitution. Baartman however had refused payment to allow scientists to observe her genitals in spring 1815, suggesting she both retained her Khoi standards of modesty and was not destitute at that time: and as a French paper carried the usual advertisements for her show only a week prior to her death, she may always have been able to support herself without recourse to prostitution.
Since her rise to prominence Baartman’s body has been used to set a borderline between the "abnormal" African woman and "normal" Caucasian woman. The fact that she had protruding buttocks and an extended labia minora made society view her as this “wild or savage female”. Her “abnormalities”, as Georges Cuvier mentions in the “Gender, Race and Nation” chapter of The Gender and Science Reader, made her resemble everything but a white woman. She had a peculiar jaw structure, a short chin, and a flat nose, which resembled that of a "Negro." She was then considered to be part of the "Negro race," which at the time was considered the lowest race of humans. She was sometimes likened to an orangutan instead.
In cartoons and drawings Baartman's features were often exaggerated to highlight her difference from the perceived "normal" Caucasian female. This social construction of visual imagery likely amplified and reinforced racist perspectives. Little of this knowledge can be considered completely factual as most knowledge of Baartman is not extrapolated from diverse sources of documentation.
Since Baartman was subject to perform not in the regular European-style clothes she would have worn in Cape Town, but in costume. "People came to see her because they saw her not as a person but as a pure example of this one part of the natural world," Crais says. In Paris, Baartman's promoters didn't need to concern themselves with slavery charges. "By the time she got to Paris," Crais says, "her existence was really quite miserable and extraordinarily poor. Sara was literally treated like an animal. There is some evidence to suggest that at one point a collar was placed around her neck." Upon death Baartman's body was sent to George Cuvier's laboratory at the Museum of Natural History for examination. Cuvier wanted to examine her genitals to test his theory that the more "primitive" the mammal, the more pronounced would be the sexual organs and sexual drive. Baartman refused to be an experiment while she was alive. With permission from police, Cuvier, who had amassed the world's largest collection of human and animal specimens, conducted an autopsy on Baartman's dead body. First he made a cast of her body, then he preserved her brain and genitals. Cuvier concluded that "the Hottentots" were closer to great apes than humans. The rest of Baartman's flesh was boiled down to bones for Cuvier's collection and displayed for years afterward. Baartman's body did not receive a proper burial until much later. Crais says, "Today she is behind bars even in her grave, and no one goes to visit."
After her death, Sarah Baartman’s body underwent processes of “institutional rape”, through the dissection and ‘analysis’ of her brain, organs, genitalia and buttocks. Blaineville and Cuvier had asked Baartman to allow them to study her nude while she had been alive and she had refused them this request. No consent had been given by Baartman to allow scientists to see, touch or use her body for 'scientific' purposes after her death.
During 1814-1870, there were at least seven scientific descriptions of the bodies of women of color done in comparative anatomy. Cuvier's dissection of Baartman helped shape European science. Baartman, along with several other African women who were dissected, were referred to as Hottentots, or sometimes Bushwomen. The savage woman was very distinct from the civilized female of Europe. The nineteenth century scientist who explored the body along with the earth was fascinated by the Hottentot Venus. Two centuries ago, people in London were able to pay two shillings apeice to gaze upon her body in wonder. Baartman was considered a freak of nature. For extra pay, one could even poke her with a stick or finger.
Della Perry and Ruth Whiteside are feminist theorists who have discussed how the label ‘disability’ and the term ‘biological determinism’ have affected the exploitation, discrimination and abuse of women and people of African descent. They comment on how differences in biology have dictated a social hierarchy and stratification. “ Western science has been practiced almost exclusively by white, middle class or upper class males, primarily heterosexuals … the valued characteristics of intellect and rationality are generalized by scientists to the extension of the self … the ‘other’, by definition, is the opposite of the ‘self’, and therefore comes to be regarded as intrinsically lesser value.” Sara Baartman’s sex and race were the main physical and cultural traits that caused her to be engaged in a scientifically racist and sexist study. Her organs, genitalia and buttocks were thought to be evidence of her sexual primitivism and intellectual equality with that of an orangutan.
Baartman's story was never completely told, instead her silent displays including face paint, tight body stockings, and animal skins did all the talking, contributing to myths about those who were from Africa being considered primitive or beneath and closer to nature than humans. While Baartman lived in Europe, she was constantly made into political cartoons, drawings, gazed upon in disbelief, studied, and upon death, dissected.
There has been much speculation and study about colonialist influence that relates to Saartjie Baartman's name, social status, her illustrated and performed presentation as the 'Hottentot Venus', and the negotiation for her bodies return to her homeland. These components and events in Baartman's life have been used by activists and theorists to determine the ways in which 19th century European colonists exercised control and authority over Khoikhoi people and simultaneously crafted racist and sexist ideologies about their culture. In addition to this, recent scholars have begun to analyze the surrounding events leading up to Baartman's return to her homeland and conclude that it is an expression of recent contemporary post colonial objectives.
In Janet Shibamoto’s book review of Deborah Cameron’s book “Feminism and linguistic theory.” Shibamoto discusses Cameron’s study on the patriarchal context within language, which consequentially influences the way in which women continue to be contained by or subject to ideologies created by the patriarchy. Many scholars have presented information on how Baartman's life was heavily controlled and manipulated by colonialist and patriarchal language.
Saartjie Baartman grew up on a colonialist farm. There is no historical documentation of her indigenous Khoisan name. She was given the Dutch name 'Saartjie' by Dutch colonialists who occupied the land she lived on during her childhood. According to Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, “Her first name is the Cape Dutch form for ‘Sarah’ which marked her as a colonialist’s servant. ‘Saartje’ the diminutive, was also a sign of affection. Encoded in her first name were the tensions of affection and exploitation. Her surname literally means ‘bearded man’ in Dutch. It also means uncivilized, uncouth, barbarous, savage. Saartjie Baartman – the savage servant”
Dutch colonizers also bestowed the term 'Hottentot,' which is derived from the Dutch word for 'stammer' or 'stutter.' The Dutch used this word when referencing Khoikhoi people because of the clicking sounds and staccato pronunciations that characterize the Khoikhoi language; these components of the Khoikhoi language were considered strange and “bestial” to Dutch colonizers. The term was used until the 20th century, at which point most people understood its effect as a derogatory term.
Travelogues that circulated in Europe would describe Africa as being 'uncivilized' and lacking regard for religious virtue. Travelogues, and imagery depicting Black women as 'sexually primitive' and 'savage' enforced the belief that it was in Africa's best interest to be colonized by European settlers. Cultural and religious conversion was considered to be an altruistic act with imperialist undertones; colonizers believed that they were reforming and correcting Khoisan culture in the name of the Christian faith and empire.
During the lengthy negotiation to have Baartman's body returned to her home country after her death, the assistant curator of Musee de l' homme, Philippe Mennecier argued against her return stating: “ we never know what science will be able to tell us in the future. If she is buried, this chance will be lost ... for us she remains a very important treasure.” According to Sadiah Qureshi, due to the continued treatment of Baartman's body as a cultural artifact, Philippe Mennecier's statement is contemporary evidence of the same type of ideology that surrounded Saartjie Baartman's body while she was alive in the 19th century.
Many African female diasporic artists have criticized the traditional iconography of Saartjie Baartman. According to the studies of contemporary feminists, traditional iconography and historical illustrations of Baartman are effective in revealing the ideological representation of black women in art throughout history. Such studies assess how the traditional iconography of the black female body was institutionally and scientifically defined in the nineteenth century.
Renee Cox, Renee Green, Joyce Scott, Lorna Simpson, Cara Mae Weems and Deborah Willis are artists who seek to investigate contemporary social and cultural issues that still surround the African female body. Sander Gilman, a cultural and literary historian states: 'While many groups of African Blacks were known to Europeans in the nineteenth century, the Hottentot remained representative of the essence of the Black, especially the Black female. Both concepts fulfilled the iconographic function in the perception and representation of the world.'
One widely noted article by Sander Gilman, "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine and Literature" traces art historical records of black women in European art, and also proves that the association of black women with concupiscence within art history has been illustrated consistently since the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Julien-Joseph Virey used Sarah Baartmans published image to validate racial typologies. In his essay, Dictionnaire des sciences medicates (Dictionary of medical sciences), he summarizes the true nature of the black female within the framework of accepted medical discourse. Virey focused on identifying her sexual organs as more developed and distinct in comparison to white female organs. All of his theories regarding sexual primitivism are influenced and supported by the anatomical studies and illustrations of Sarah Baartman which were created by Georges Cuvier.
Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Valerie Cox worked in collaboration to produce the photographic piece Hottentot Venus 2000. In this piece, Harris photographs Victoria Cox who presents herself as Baartman while wearing large, sculptural, gold, metal breasts and buttocks attached to her body. According to Deborah Willis, the paraphernalia attached to Cox's body are markers for the way in which Baartman's sexual body parts were essential for her constructed role or function as the 'Hottentot Venus.' Willis also explains that Cox's side angle shot makes reference to the 'scientific' traditional propaganda used by Cuvier and Julian-Joseph Virey who sourced Baartman's traditional illustrations and iconography to publish their 'scientific' findings.
Reviewers of Harris and Cox's work have commented that the presence of 'the gaze' in the photograph of Cox presents a critical engagement with previous traditional imagery of Baartman. bell hooks elaborates further on the function of the gaze stating “ The gaze has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally. Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that 'looks' to document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating 'awareness' politicizes 'looking' relations - one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.”
"Permitted" is an installation piece created by Renee Green inspired by Sarah Baartman. Green created a specific viewing arrangement to investigate the European perception of the black female body as 'exotic', 'bizarre' and 'monstrous.' Viewers were prompted to step onto the installed platform which was meant to evoke a stage, where Baartman may have been exhibited. Green recreates the basic setting of Baartman's exhibition. At the centre of the platform, which there is a large image of Baartman, and wooden rulers or slats with an engraved caption by Francis Galton encouraging viewers to measure Baartman's buttocks. In the installation there is also a peephole that allows viewers to see an image of Baartman standing on a crate. According to Willis, the implication of the peephole, demonstrates how ethnographic imagery of the black female form in the nineteenth century functioned as a form of pornography for Europeans present at Baartmans exhibit.
In her film, “ Reassemblage: From the firelight to the screen”, Trinh T. Minh-ha comments on the ethnocentric bias that the colonizers eye applies to the naked female form. Minha argues that this bias causes the nude female body to be seen as inherently sexually provocative, promiscuous and pornographic within the context of European or western culture. Feminist artists are interested in re-representing Saartjie Baartman's image, and work to highlight the stereotypes and ethnocentric bias surrounding the black female body based on art historical representations and iconography that occurred before, after and during Saartjie Baartman's lifetime.
In November 2014 The Paper Magazine released a cover of Kim Kardashian in which she was illustrated as balancing a champagne bottle on her extended rear. The cover received much literary criticism for endorsing “the exploitation and fetishism of the black female body.”The photo has received much criticism and commentary on mimicking the way in which Saartjie Baartman was represented as the 'Hottentot Venus' during the 19th century.
According to writer Geneva S. Thomas, anyone that is aware of black women's history under colonialist influence would consequentially be aware that Kim Kardashian's photo easily elicits memory regarding the visual representation of Saartji Baartman. The photographer and director of the photo, Jean Paul Goud based the photo off of his previous work 'Carolina Beaumont' that he took of a nude model in 1976 which was published in his book 'Jungle Fever.'
A People Magazine's article in 1979 describes Jean Paul Goud in the following statement: “The son of a French engineer and an American-born dancer, he grew up in a Paris suburb. From the moment he saw West Side Story and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, he found himself captivated by 'ethnic minorities' —black girls, PRs. 'I had jungle fever.' He now says, 'Blacks are the premise of my work.'” Days before the shoot, Jean Paul Gould often worked with his models to find the best 'hyperbolized' position to take his photo's. His model and wife, Grace Jones, would also pose for days prior to finally acquiring the perfect form. “Thats the basis of my entire work,” Gould states, “creating a credible illusion.” Similarly, Sarah Baartman and other black female slaves were illustrated and depicted in a specific form to identify features, which were seen as proof of ideologies regarding black female primitivism.
The professional background of Jean Paul Goud and the specific posture and presentation of Kim Kardashian's image on the cover of paper magazine, has caused feminist critics to comment how the objectification of the Saartjie Baartman's body and the ethnographic representation of her image in 19th society presents a comparable and complimentary parallel to how Kim Kardashian is currently represented in the media.
She died on 29 December 1815 of an undetermined inflammatory ailment, possibly smallpox, while other sources suggest she contracted syphilis, or pneumonia. A dissection was conducted, and published by French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1816, and republished by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in 1817. Cuvier, who had met Baartman, notes in his monograph that its subject was an intelligent woman with an excellent memory, particularly for faces. In addition to her native tongue, she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English, and a smattering of French. He describes her shoulders and back as "graceful", arms "slender", hands and feet as "charming" and "pretty". He adds she was adept at playing the jew's harp could dance according to the traditions of her country, and had a lively personality. Despite this, he interpreted her remains, in accordance with his theories on racial evolution, as evidencing ape-like traits. He thought her small ears were similar to those of an orangutan and also compared her vivacity, when alive, to the quickness of a monkey. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris' Musée de l'Homme until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a cast was still shown for the following two years.
There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains, beginning in the 1940s. A poem written in 1978 by Diana Ferrus, herself of Khoisan descent, entitled "I've come to take you home", played a pivotal role in spurring the movement to bring Baartman's remains back to her birth soil. The case gained world-wide prominence only after Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Hottentot Venus in the 1980s. After the victory of the African National Congress in the South African general election, 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002 and they were buried on 9 August 2002 on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey over 200 years after her birth.
Baartman became an icon in South Africa as representative of many aspects of the nation's history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, a refuge for survivors of domestic violence, opened in Cape Town in 1999. South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel, the Sarah Baartman, is also named after her. Today, activists and academics claim Baartman as a symbol of Western exploitation and racism.
Baartman’s skeleton and body cast were displayed in Muséum d'histoire naturelle d’Angers, where she entertained visitors until her skull was stolen in 1827, and subsequently returned a few months later. The restored skeleton and skull continued to arouse the interest of visitors until the remains were moved to the Musee de l’ Homme, when it was founded in 1937, and continued up until the late 1970s. Her body cast and skeleton stood side by side and faced away from the viewer which emphasized her steatopygia (accumulation of fat on the buttocks) while reinforcing that aspect as the primary interest of her body. The Baartman exhibit proved popular until it elicited complaints from feminists who believed the exhibit was a degrading representation of women. The skeleton was removed in 1974, and the body cast in 1976.
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