Saartjie or Sarah was a Khoekhoe woman born around 1789 in what is now South Africa, an area colonized before her birth by the Dutch. In her late teens or early 20s she was sold to a British man and sent to London. She was billed as the “Hottentot Venus”, Hottentot being the label applied to the Khoekhoe people at the time (it is now considered highly derogatory) and Venus to evoke her sexual nature. She was exhibited in freak shows or in her own stage show to the public first in England and then in France until her death in 1815. During this time, she was depicted in many caricatures for advertising purposes, with her buttocks, breast, and facial features exaggerated to emphasize their difference from European features. In France, she was the subject of scientific examination and study by Georges Cuvier and others, who wrote extensively about the ways in which her bodily features were indicators of her racial inferiority and sexual nature. Throughout these investigations, Baartman refused to allow the scientists to examine her genitals, turning down repeated monetary bribes. After her death, a plaster cast of her body was made and it was dissected. Her bones and several organs along with the cast were displayed in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris until the mid-1970s when they were taken down and stored in the museum.
image source: Reuters, BBC
South African President Nelson Mandela began to make requests of the French government for the return of Baartman’s remains to their home in 1995. After many refusals, denials, and negotiations, Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa in 2002 where they were buried.
image sourece: wikipedia
Baartman remains a symbol of the racist sexualization and exploitation of the people of Africa by European imperialists.
Baartman’s life and legacy has been the subject of many works of art. In 2002 and 2003, artist Mara Verna collected a variety of media related to the controversy over Baartman’s remains. The exhibition was called Hottentot Venus. She intentionally chose not to exhibit any drawings of Baartman done while she was alive to avoid the messages embedded in those works.
In 2012, artist Makode Linde created a work called “Painful Cake” in which he created a torso made out of cake above which his own face sat, both designed in the caricature-esque style in which African people were represented around Baartman’s time. The directors and cultural ministers of the Swedish museum where the work was displayed were invited to cut into the cake while Makode screamed in pain. The work was intended to raise awareness of female genital mutilation and to recall the imperialist colonization of Africa and the damage it inflicted on the people there. King Leopold of Belgium famously referred to European nations claiming slices of the “African cake”. The work was enormously controversial and many denounced it as racist. The African Swedish National Association criticized the work and called for the resignation of the cultural minister who had commissioned it.
The notions of separation from home, and the othering and display of bodies is also shown in the work of Zarina Bhimji, Sonia Boyce, and Keith Piper who were featured in the reading in Jones’ A Companion to Contemporary Art from 1945-present.
Questions for Discussion
What ideas and themes connect the display of Saartjie Baartman and the work of contemporary artists?
How would you define post-colonialism? globalization? repatriation?
What is the role of post-colonialism in art? colonialism? globalization?
What is the significance of the number of British artists exploring these concepts, especially during the 1980s?
How does repatriation fit into museum ethics?
How has globalization changed how we see these topics?
How do these topics relate to the themes of exploring representation of the black body in art and institutional critique which we have recently discussed?