Monday, July 27, 2009

Hottentot Venus

Time to tell the story of the Hottentot Venus. I just finished a book about her and everyone I've mentioned her to has never heard of her - though hers is a household name in South Africa...
Saartjie (pronounced Sar-key, and anglicized as Sarah) Baartman (1789-1815) was a Khoikhoi* woman, brought to England at the age of 20 from her life of slavery on the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa. In exchange for a portion of the profits, she was exhibited to the public as the exotic Hottentot Venus, notable for two characteristics of her people: steatopygia (large buttocks) and sinus pudoris (extended labia also known as the "apron" or "veil of shame"). She became a sensation in Piccadilly, where she performed on her ramkie (watch video of a modern version being played here) dressed in a form-fitting outfit and adorned with African beads and ostrich feathers - and was compelled to allow members of the audience to poke and pinch her bottom. She became a cause celebre among abolitionists, who raised the issue of her economic exploitation, and a symbol of the repression of women and the overly sexualized representation of African women in particular. And, when she was taken to Paris, she became the subject of intense scientific (and some say prurient) scrutiny by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and his colleagues, who finally convinced her to disrobe so they could examine and sketch her. Alcohol abuse contributed to her death, after which Cuvier gained custody of her body to satisfy his curiosity about her "apron," which - even when naked - she had shielded with a handkerchief. Saartjie's corpse was dissected by Cuvier, who preserved her skeleton, her brain, and - yes - her genitals, which were on display at the Musee de l'Homme, along with the cast made of her body, until 1974. Largely due to the rediscovery of these specimens in a storeroom by American scientist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), there were calls for the repatriation of Saartjie's remains to her native South Africa. Former president Nelson Mandela made a formal request, which was finally honored in 2002.
*"Hottentot" is today considered a pejorative term.

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