In The Venus Hottentot (1825) poet Elizabeth Alexander describes the voyage, life and afterlife of the woman we know as Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a young Khoisan woman taken from South Africa in 1810 to be displayed on stages across Europe. It was Sarah’s physical anatomy—in particular her large buttocks (steatopygia) and elongated labia (which she never allowed to be publicly displayed), known to be a characteristic of some Khoisan women—that brought her such attention.
Sarah underwent extensive physical investigation, and was spectacularly paraded across Europe, in cages and on stages. Called Hottentot Venus—an amalgamation of a 19th century term for the Khoisan and referencing the goddess of love—Sarah’s body became a symbol of racial inferiority and primitive sexuality for European viewers. Although he described her as intelligent and fluent in several languages, it was the scientist Georges Cuvier who would have her skeleton and genitalia displayed in the Paris Musée de l'Homme.
From Sarah's body came knowledge: Scientific investigations were performed on her through which facts could be qualified into truth. She became science made flesh and she has come to symbolize the meaning of the gaze for black women. Her spectacular circulation on stage, in print and as science, epitomized the sexualization of the black female body and its voyeuristic consumption. Sarah’s body was repository and representation through which white scientists, viewers—and perhaps even lovers—sought to understand their place in the world.
Alexander’s poem gives us two positions in response to this history. Reading the actions of Cuvier and then Sarah’s own thoughts we watch, like voyeurs. On the other hand Sarah takes center stage, controlling her own performance and watching us. I do not make this reading to suggest that Sarah may have enjoyed or asserted control over her exploitation. Rather poems like Alexander’s allow us to reflect on the ways subjectivity is experienced and constructed by self and others.
From the moment Cuvier transforms Sarah into something to be explored and studied—an object to be laid bare—we are drawn into an interior life, a personhood that exists beyond this exterior surface of science. While we never forget the objectification of this woman, her spectacular display is transformed into a private interaction. Art has this power to excavate representations and create discussions that move beyond the surfeit of signs that circulate and surround.
In 1995 the artists Renee Cox and Lyle Ashton Harris created Venus Hottentot 2000. Wearing metallic oversized breasts and a metallic black bottom extension Cox stands in profile, her head turned to the left so she can face the viewer. The work of Cox and Harris revolves around the politics of identity and the aesthetics of the body, although in very different ways. Here the glossy, high art finish of an image erotically charged yet a form of caricature intensely evokes the ambiguities of display. Historical in its pose, yet wholly modern in its aesthetics the work hinges on this uncomfortable relationship between glamor and voyeurism, eroticism and spectacle. Thus display here becomes something that reveals the past (attachments) yet strips it bare to reveal a future where these historical moments have become spaces for empowerment.
The piece reminds me of the work of performance artist Holly Bass whose intriguing dance routines, built on endurance and usually performed in seven inch platforms, also revolve around the story of Sarah Baartman. In a recent work Moneymaker Bass, dressed in a gorgeous red one piece and star spangled banner platforms, danced for several hours in a perspex box installed above one of the entrances at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. Attached to her bottom were two large, golden basket balls, and she danced to a soundtrack of funk classics and hip hop.
Moneymaker brings together the history of black display—Sarah Baartman, slave auctions, blaxploitation—and contemporary culture, hip hop, sport, fashion and music. Turning Cox’s glamour shot into a moving image, Bass powerfully traces the embodied genealogies between past and present forms of cultural expression. In her movements moreover she literally creates space for these moments to intersect with our everyday experiences. She articulates the complicating and contradicting forces of commodification that form a part of our most liberating expressions of identity. But she endures: Her pieces require weeks of preparation and recovery.
As she “works it” Bass reminds us of the physicality of the body, which Alexander and Cox also highlight as central to Sarah Baartman’s narrative. Rather than glibly providing moments of empowerment or tragically evoking the boundaries of black women’s expression within prescribed limits, these artists remind us of the materiality of display. Memorializing Sarah’s story, they evoke the processes and logics of the spectacle to remind us of the currency of these histories and of the meaning, experience and subjectivity of the women whose continued objectification we speak and write about.
Anna Kesson is a doctoral fellow at Yale University.