In the Winter 2014, “Break the Internet”, issue of Paper magazine Kim Kardashian’s cover sparked literary controversy. While some were not surprised by (yet another) “degrading” magazine cover, it received much criticism for “endorsing the exploitation and fetishism of the black female body”. The photographer, Jean-Paul Goude, is infamous for dehumanising African women and producing exoticized images, a fact many people may not know. He typically photographs African women in various poses and cuts up the photographs and reassembles the picture to create grotesque, exaggerated images. Some of these exoticized images are a reincarnation of Saartjie Baartman that, to people of African heritage, serve as a reminder of centuries of racism, tyranny and objectification.
Saartjie “Sara” Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman, born in 1789 in South Africa, who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in the 19th Century due to her ‘abnormal features’. Her people were colonised by the Dutch and she was sold as a slave to Pieter Willem Cezar at the age of sixteen. She was then taken to Cape Town where she worked as a domestic servant for Cezar’s brother. In 1810 the Cezar family began experiencing financial difficulties and looked to Baartman as a source of income as there was much curiously in Europe about Africans and Baartman with her “notable buttocks and spotty giraffe skin” would be even more popular. She allegedly ‘signed’ a contract with William Dunlop (an English ship surgeon) who was a friend of Cezar, agreeing to travel with Cezar’s brother and Dunlop to England and Ireland to work as a domestic servant and be an entertainment exhibit. Her ‘contract’ stated that she would receive a portion of her earnings and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. However, it was unlikely that Baartman would have understood what she had signed as she was illiterate.
When Sara arrived in England colonial Europeans, who regarded themselves as racially superior, saw her as an oddity. She was taken to the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly Circus where other oddities like the “the ne plus ultra of hideousness” and “the greatest deformity in the world” were exhibited. She was displayed in a cage six days a week and forced to do suggestive ‘native’ dances half naked. People paid two shillings to view the “wild or savage female” and for an extra charge they could even poke her with a stick.
At the time, the campaign against slavery in Britain was prominent and her ‘employers’ were brought to trial over the treatment of Baartman by an abolitionist society called the African Association who campaigned in newspapers for her release. However, they faced no real consequences after Cezar produced her ‘contract’ and she gave evidence that she was not being abused. She was questioned for three hours, however the conditions in which she gave her account are questionable as her statements directly contradict accounts of her exhibitions. Nevertheless, changes were made to her contract, entitling her to medical treatment, warmer clothes, ‘better conditions’ and greater profit share. On the flip side, the trial only provided publicity for her exhibit and increased her popularity.
In September 1814 Sara was taken to France where S. Reaux, an animal trainer, displayed her across Paris. He began exhibiting her in a cage with a baby rhinoceros and as her ‘trainer’ would order to sit and stand like a circus animal. She was given the name Hottentot Venus – ‘Hottentot’ was the then current name for the native Khoisan due to the clicking sound of their language and ‘Venus’ was a reference to the Roman goddess of love. She only wore a tan loincloth – and was only allowed that due to her insistence, as it was culturally important for her.
George Cuvier, a naturalist, requested if he could study Baartman as a science specimen and from 1815 French physiologists, anatomists and zoologists studied her like an animal specimen. Cuvier established that she was a “link between animals and humans” and was used to support and emphasise the stereotype of Africans being “oversexed” and belonging to an inferior race. Sara was also the subject of scientific paintings at Jardin du Roi where she posed only in a loincloth.
Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 26 of syphilis, small pox or pneumonia. Her remains were obtained by Cuvier who dissected her body. Cuvier noted in his monograph that Baartman had ape-like traits. He compared her small ears to those of orangutans and “her vivacity, when alive, to the quickness of a monkey”. Her body was dissected and her brain and genitals were removed and placed in jars; they were displayed along with her skeleton and a plaster body cast in Paris’ Musée d’histoire naturelle d’Angers. These remains were moved to the Musée de l’Homme when it was founded in 1937. To emphasise her ‘steatopygia’ (an excessive development of fat on the buttocks) and reinforce it as the primary attraction of her body, her skeleton and cast were displayed facing away from the viewer. It was a popular attraction until it was criticised by feminists who viewed it as an oppressing and misogynistic representation of women’s bodies. Her skeleton was removed in 1974 with her body cast remaining on display until 1976.
After the victory of the African National Congress in the 1994 South African general election, President Nelson Mandela formally requested for the return of her remains. After much deliberation and discussion in the French National Assembly, her remains were returned and buried in the town of Hankey on the 9th of August 2002 – over 200 years after her birth.
This article was published in Zen Mag: