Encounter with Saartje Baartman

A naked woman stands on a pedestal with a barely legible inscription: La Belle Hottentot. Around her gathered a curious crowd, with words of disbelief and delight falling from their mouths. What has aroused their emotions so much? Not nudity after all. Examples of ancient nudes have long been filling private and public collections, enjoyed by the eyes of visitors. Who is this woman? Why the sight of her put the viewers in such an ecstasy?

Les Curieux en extase, ou les cordons de souliers, ok. 1815 ©British Museum

Saartje Baartman, commonly known as the Hottentot Venus came from the Khoikhoi people inhabiting the southern part of Africa and then referred to as Hottentots (which today is considered offensive as created by colonizers). Her arrival to Europe was a result of adventurous coincidences and she was then deprived of freedom and opportunity to decide about her own destiny. Her above-average size buttocks brought her dubious fame and were the reason she was exhibited in the freak shows in London and Paris. In this way she has become a hostage of her own body.

There are several interviews with Baartman that survived, carried out during the process of her manumission in London. However, they do not give much insight into who she was as a person, what was her dreams or values she kept. We can tell more about the European relation to otherness from these visual materials concerning Saartje. Popular prints, exploiting stereotypes and fantasies about distant lands, remained fixed on the narrative of superiority – both on civilization and evolutionary grounds. It was the affiliation to the African tribe that was defining Saartje in European eyes. Africa was considered to be distant not only geographically, but evolutionary as well.

Miłość i Piękno, karykatura z Saartje jako Hottentott Venus

Her steatopygic buttocks were the proof that she should not be treated on an equal footing with other people. And so she was presented on a variety of illustrations in tribal costumes with highly exposed anatomic details and much nudity. Thus emphasized was her place on the ladder of development of species – one level below the Europeans.

There has been no portrait of Saartje Baartman created, even though there were very plenty opportunities to make such. In her time she was something of a celebrity. However, the essence of a portrait is the directness of contact between the viewer and the model – its face captivates, the gazes meet, the mutual relationship is established. Therefore making a portrait would mean the humanization of the Khoikhoi. And that was not the position the Europeans would like to claim towards cultures they consider inferior. They felt more at ease with the position of dominance. They dictated who is considered a human being, judging on the principles of faith or science. And in the relationship with power, knowledge loses all its innocence and objectivity. As Michel Foucault put it – knowledge is not formed outside the influence of politics, system and is serving justification of certain statements or standards, which the power uses and the power shapes the knowledge so that it can more effectively control the individuals.

In the print Saartje looks at us from the height of the pedestal. Her body so tempting with all its curves, has been bleached by the artist, devoid of dark pigmentation. Her pose, at first glance expressing modesty, repeats the body language of the Venus de Medici, one of the most often copied ancient sculptures. Saartje loses her identity, she is being transformed into artifact, curiosity exposed to public view. And only in her eyes directed straight at us, we can see a glimmer of individuality.

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