Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), often known by her colonial nickname, the “Hottentot Venus,” is the tragic figure of the colonized body par excellence. During her short existence, and even after, her body has been the fetish of sadism — one can think of Sade’s Justine — in its spectacular, racist and colonialist aspects. The film Black Venus (2010) by Tunisian French director Abdellatif Kechiche is particularly helpful to explore the tragic chronology of Baartman’s life (after 1810), and I therefore recommend its viewing.
Until 1810, Baartman was a slave in an Afrikaner farm in South Africa. She is then brought to London where she becomes the object of a freak show for the particularity of her body’s morphology. Her hips and buttocks are indeed hypertrophied and her genitals bulging. Kechiche’s film dramatizes the spectacularity of her presentation to the (paying) spectators: she is displayed like a wild and dangerous animal that each is invited to touch as a challenge to his/her fear. She is then moved in Paris where she becomes the subject of scientific paintings insisting on her body’s morphology presented as one of the remain of prehistoric human bodies. Her genitalia being a particular object of attention for scientists, she is repeatedly offered money to display it to an academic audience. She is finally subjected to prostitution in private parties at first, then in a brothel and dies of an unknown disease (perhaps small pox or syphilis) in 1815. The tragic story that objectifies her body is however not over as it is dissected and placed into formalin by a French anatomist and zoologist that uses his research to attempt to demonstrate in front of the French National Academy of Medicine (see the still of Kechiche’s film above) a racist theory of evolution for which black bodies are considered as pre-humans. The mold created on her corpse will be exhibited by the prestigious Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974, and it is only in 2002 that the demands from the Khoïkhoï (racistly called “Hottentot” by the Afrikaners), supported by the post-Apartheid South African government, will be met by the French government in order to send back Baartman’s remains to be buried on her native land.
The colonial subjectivization of Baartman’s body is thus operative at many levels: the various forms of slavery to which she was confronted are rather obvious, the capitalized spectacle of her body combines racist objectification with the display of her body as commodity, and the academic interest for her body’s morphology to serve colonial ideologies through the simulacrum of scientist evolutionary demonstrations even after her actual death. The slave master, the capitalist entertainer, the pimp and the racist scientist are the four aspects of the same figure of the colonialist. This dominating figure wants to simultaneously have access to free or under-payed (wo)manpower, to develop an economy of spectacle to its bourgeois audience, to subjugate the colonized body to his desire (see past article about the “desired colonized body”) and eventually to justify the system of rationality he uses to legitimatize his acts through the fallacious construction of an ideology that excludes the colonized body from the realms of human beings entitled to rights.
The fact that Baartman’s remains of her corpse took so long to be actually sent back to her land to obtain the symbolic rest to which her life seems to have never accessed, is highly expressive of how colonialism is not just a historical era, but also a currently operative ideology in the Western world, both domestically and internationally. The scientific and political coalition that was arguing against her return to South Africa, arguing that her body belonged to the French national scientific legacy, illustrates as well how such an ideology does not only operates in the subjectivity of the political state, but also through the claimed objectivity of scientists and other carriers of “discourses of truth.”