Some time ago now I referred to someone else’s post about Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, in a History Carnival. Since then, I have been surprised at how many people have come mistakenly to The Vapour Trail in search of information about her.
The numbers of people desperately seeking Sara suggests the extent to which the Hottentot Venus has become a poster-girl for black sexuality and its exploitation in Western society.
This is a point made by American art historian, Z. S. Strother, in a brilliant essay called ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, the first part of which I paraphrase here.
Sara (or Saartjie) Baartman was a Khoikoi woman from South Africa who was exhibited in London and Paris in 1810 under the sobriquet ‘the Hottentot Venus’. She suffered from steatopygia, or enlargement of the buttocks, and came from the tribe then known in Europe as the Hottentots. Gawping multitudes came to see her in London: so many, in fact, that she was later made the subject of a Parisian vaudeville play and examined by Georges Cuvier at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle.
Interest in Baartman has been re-ignited in recent decades. This is largely on account of her appearance in 1980s discussions of the construction of sexuality in science and medicine: most notably, those of Stephen Jay Gould (1982) and Sander Gilman (1985). She was also made the star character in a play debuting in New York in 1996: Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks.
In Parks’ Venus, Baartman was described as the obsessive love-object of Georges Cuvier. She was also depicted in more-or-less lubricious fashion, with a padded rear and breasts emphasising her curves. It was largely as a result of these works that Baartman was placed back into the glare of public curiosity, becoming all-but-inseparable from discussions of black women’s sexuality.
Ironically, however, Baartman’s contemporaries in London and Paris classed her as neither black nor sexy. Her success at the time was a result of ‘her status as a figure of the anti-erotic, which allowed her to cross from the “freak show” to the pseudo-educational ethnographic shows’.
It was chiefly as a creature thought to be without language, culture, memory or consciousness, Strother tells us, that Baartman was interesting to a European audience. As such a figure she could never ‘threaten the viewer with the sexual power of a “Venus'”‘. There was thus supposed to be a snide humour about giving her this label, on a par with white colonists’ sniggering references to their black servants as dukes or kings.
Perhaps, then, the Hottentot Venus’ revival in popular consciousness tells us far more about the obsession with black sexuality in our own age than that in Europe in the early nineteenth century.
S. L. Gilman, ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late 19th-C Art, Medicine & Literature’, Critical Inqurity, 12.1 (1985): 204-42.
S. J. Gould, ‘The Hottentot Venus’, Natural History, 91.9 (1983): 20-27.
Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors, ed., Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.