Friday, November 12, 2010
The Hottentot Venus
Venus Noire movie trailer
Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is perhaps the most infamous case of a Khosian body on display.
Baartman, who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her physique, particularly her large buttocks, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end to Baartman's public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor.
The spectacle of Baartman's body, however, continued even after her death at the age of twenty-six. Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating "primitive sexuality" dissected and cast her genitals in wax. Baartman, as far as we know, was the first person of Khosian-descent to be dismembered and displayed in this manner. Anatomist Georges Curvier presented Baartman's dissected labia before the Academie Royale de Medecine, in order to allow them "to see the nature of the labia" (Curvier and his contemporaries concluded that Baartman's oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women's "primitive sexual appetite." Baartman's genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l'Homme, the institution to which Curvier belonged, long after her death.
This introduction to the history of human displays of people of color demonstrates that cultural difference and "otherness" were visually observed on the "native" body, whether in live human exhibitions or in dissected body parts on public display. Both forms of spectacle often served to promote Western colonial domination by configuring non-white cultures as being in need of discipline, civilization, and industry.