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Darwin Correspondence Project

Black Venus

Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham) on the film Vénus Noire (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010)

Sara Baartman has long been characterised as ‘Black Venus’, or ‘Vénus Noire’.

The epithet encapsulates how her exploitation and objectification whilst alive and dead has come to be seen as broadly representative of black peoples’ historical mistreatment. After all, at her funeral the former African President Thabo Mbeki has maintained that: ‘The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African ‎people…. It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom … [and] of our reduction to the state of objects who ‎could be owned, used and discarded by others’.[1] In many ways this is understandable. By the end of the nineteenth century European interest in ‎and ethnographic preservation of the Khoisan body led to the accumulation of thousands of artefacts, from bones to entire stuffed bodies, in museum collections around the world. Meanwhile, the voyeuristic interest in her body has also been seen as symbolic of broader ways in which black women’s bodies have been sexualised and been consistently denigrated as anomalous or less beautiful than European and white women’s bodies. To this day, Baartman’s treatment is often used to contextualise discussions of contemporary female sexuality.[2] This conflation between the ‘Hottentot Venus’ and modern day ‘Black Venus’ is worth reconsidering.

Baartman was exhibited in a period when ‘blackness’ was being created; instead, public discussion usually distinguished quite carefully between different African groups, from the Khoikhoi to the Zulu. The use of ‘blackness’ as an identifying and unifying category only became more common as the nineteenth-century wore on and with the emergence of movements such as pan-Africanism first gave rise to an international conference in London in 1900.

Baartman was said to be an exemplar of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ not black women or black people as a whole and audiences, whether in Piccadilly or Paris, are unlikely to have seen her as a ‘Black Venus’ even if they did view her as ‘savage’.  Such specificities also help explain why people were interested in seeing her at all. After all, London had a black population numbering at least 10,000 but one that was dominated by individuals of African American, Caribbean or West Indian extraction. Able to speak English, dressed in European attire and often converts to Christianity, they were relatively integrated into British culture, whether as servants or more equally as amongst the lower classes. Yet, when’s Baartman exhibition opened even Londoners with considerable experience of the local black population would have been extremely unlikely to known a Khoikoi woman. By forgetting these differences, it becomes all too easy to make problematic assumptions that all black people were seen as the same simply because of their skin tone.

Meanwhile, campaigners who see Baartman as a symbol of black oppression often focus entirely on her life as a performer. Venus Noire follows in this vein. Careful research means that many of its scenes have a sense of accurate plausibility. For instance, many of the lithographs and engravings that the scientists were shown consulting can be found in eighteenth and nineteenth century travelogues. Likewise, the scenes of Baartman on the London stage draw directly on eye-witness statements that describe how she was poked and prodded by intrusive showgoers.

Nonetheless, the film misses an opportunity to depict less well known aspects of Baartman’s life in Africa. For a long time, such an omission would have been understandable since little was known of her early life. However, by 2008 Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully had gone to impressive lengths to trawl through the African archives and reconstruct her early life for Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. For the first time, Crais and Scully revealed many important and revealing details. For instance, Baartman had been born in the 1770s fifty miles north of the Gamtoos River Valley, but she grew up in the Camdeboo valley. When her father and mother both died, she was sold as chattel to Pieter Cesars, who was the employee for a wealthy Cape merchant. She then lived and worked in Cape Town for more than a decade before leaving for London. During this period, she became a mother but also lost her children shortly after birth. Whilst in England she was also married to an unidentified groom. In the film, these details only surface as disparate memories. Instead of giving viewers a chance to see Baartman as a woman with a meaningful life away from European stages and a sense of how and why Baartman ever chose to leave Cape Town, the film consistently focuses on Baartman’s exploitation. Ultimately, this was a missed opportunity and a mirroring of nineteenth-century interest in her body and performances, and not her entire life.

[1] Obed Zilwa, ‘Sold as a slave, exhibited as a freak, Sarah finds dignity after 200 years’, Independent, 10 August 2002, p. 12.

[2] Dream Hapmton, ‘Booming System’, Vibe, August 2009, pp. 99-104, at p. 104