The last movie in our film series was the controversial Black Venus (Vénus Noire, 2010), by director Abdellatif Kechiche. The film is based on the life of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman, who was exhibited in early nineteenth-century in Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus”. Kechiche’s film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival, and was previously shown as part of the Mosaïques Festival at the Institut Français in London. Kechiche later said that he had felt a ‘need’ to tell Sartje’s story (see the end of ‘Conversations with Abdlelatif Kechiche’ here).
Although Darwin did not see or know Sara Baartman– he was born one year before Sara’s exhibition in London– our speaker James Moore, from the Open University, pointed out that the world in which Darwin the young Darwin had grown up was that of grotesque exhibitionism and disregard for Human Nature. Darwin used the now offensive term ‘Hottentot’ to refer to peoples of south-western Africa in his letters of queries about expression.
He also used it several times in his correspondence with Charles Lyell to discuss intellectual gradation along the vertebrate scale, as well as the destruction of non-white races in a fashion that we find abhorrent today. Yet, Darwin’s conclusion, as opposed to Agassiz’s theory, was that humans had a single progenitor and consist of a single species.
Sara Baartman’s remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002, and the movie shows this in its end credits. However, the discussion after the film centred on how the second half lingers on Sara’s degradation in libertine salons and Parisian brothels. This makes for upsetting and distressing watching, that could be seen as voyeuristic or a reflection on an uncomfortable, unpalatable truth.
Listen to Jim Moore’s introduction to the film here.