Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Constructing The Hottentot Venus

Those of you interested in nineteenth century freak shows and the complexities of exhibiting 'cultural otherness', or the (de)humanization of the 'freak' and / or 'specimen', will certainly come across the diverse and often conflicting views on Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman also known as the Hottentot Venus.

Stripped of her cultural context, Baartman was exhibited as one of the most popular 'freaks' in the nineteenth century, whose body was exposed to curious viewers as a spectacle of 'cultural otherness'. Baartman was presented to viewers in a cage, dressed in a tight fitting costume which emphasized her distinctive shape. Her breasts, buttocks and hypertrophied genitalia became the nineteenth century symbol for excessive and deviant female sexuality and inspired numerous primitivist ideologies which equated her with an animal. This voyeuristic exhibiting of her body continued long after her death, resulting in numerous discourses on gender, sexuality, race, colonialism and ethnocentrism.

In case you have access to it, you might find useful Sander L. Gilman's influential and frequently quoted article entitled 'Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature' (Critical Inquiry 12, Autumn 1985) where he explores the representations of individuals in art which is frequently 'iconographic' in character, in which specific individuals represent particular 'classes' of people, especially when they are perceived as 'the other' and different to 'Western white male' concepts of normality. In referring to the Hottentot Venus, the article provides an exploration of racial stereotypes and their relationship to constructions of deviant sexuality. More specifically, Gilman discusses the 19th century fascination with Baartman's overtly sexualized 'anomalous' body parts, explaining it in the following terms:

Sarah Baartman's sexual parts, her genitalia and her buttocks, serve as the central image for the black female throughout the nineteenth century. And the model of de Blainville's and Cuvier's descriptions, which center on the detailed presentation of the sexual parts of the black, dominates all medical description during the nineteenth century. To an extent, this reflects the general nineteenth-century understanding of female sexuality as pathological: the female genitalia were of interest partly as examples of the various pathologies. (...) Sarah Baartman's genitalia and buttocks summarized her essence for the nineteenth century observers, or, indeed, for the twentieth century one.

This fascination with her body parts and her subsequent treatment as a preserved specimen additionally commodified her body, constructing it as simply another item to be collected and displayed. Dehumanized in medical reports, dissected and once again exposed after death, her voice remained largely obscured.
Another interesting article which highlights the importance of contextualization is Sadiah Qureshi's article 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus' (History of Science, Vol.42, 2004) which points to the processes involved in Baartman's objectification, politicization, exhibition and preservation. By examining these processes, it is possible to new perspectives on her story as well as 'historicize her tale'. Considering Baartman's agency, Qureshi writes:

A significant factor is the lack of agency Baartman inevitably possesses in any retelling of her story, since all the surviving records are accounts of her, rather than diaries or letters from her. Consequently, it is precisely the difficulty in recovering her agency that makes her amenable to employment as a cipher, even her minimal presence being enough; unfortunately this only constitutes further to her dispossession.

In the end, what can we know of Baartman's person? It seems to be an ever-evolving pursuit: by exploring the construction of the 'Hottentot Venus', critically reflecting on numerous existing discourses surrounding her (the sea of publications and biographies) as well as and contextualizing Baartman's story, it is possible to open new perspectives (and questions) on the life and experiences of this remarkable woman, whose real name still remains - unknown.

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