Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman isn't a name that many will recognize, outside of her native South Africa. But her story seems to embody so much about historical (and modern) contradictions of race and gender, violence, fantasy, exploitation, and prejudice, that she's become an icon for many, such as the founders of the Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children in South Africa.
Baartman was a young Khoisan woman who traveled to England in 1810, when she was 20 years old, to become a performer. In England, she quickly became famous as the "Hottentot Venus," the main attraction of a popular Piccadilly freak show exhibit, in which she presented herself as a wild savage tamed by her keeper. Dressed in a revealing bodysuit and beaded ornaments, she swaggered and growled for the audience, and turned to let them closely examine her famously prominent buttocks. Between performances, she lived comfortably, dressing as a European woman and going freely about town. She also fell to heavy drinking and her health declined. After a few years of this in England, she was sent to France, where her exploitation deepened, including her presentation as a biological specimen studied by leading scientists eager to promote their theory of white racial superiority. In France, she died of one or more undetermined infections at the age of 25.
The fact that the cause of her death remains uncertain is curious, given that after her death her remains were carefully examined, measured, and preserved in pieces. Of particular interest to these men of science who dissected her were her genitalia, which were separated and kept in a jar that was displayed in France's National Museum until the late 20th century. In 2002, after calls from the South African government, her remains were finally repatriated and buried, surrounded by a great swell of national feeling and homage paid in speeches, song, and dance.
I recently stumbled across the 2010 film, Venus Noire, the story of Saartjie Baartman, by Lebanese-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. (Watch the trailer, here.) Unsurprisingly, the film, which runs 2:40 hours and includes a significant portion of subtitled dialog in Afrikaans and French, was never distributed in the US, beyond the film festival circuit. But it is a film worth watching, difficult and complex and surely controversial for portraying Baartman's life with unmitigated rawness. Without a soundtrack, the earthy, deeply inhabited performances of the actors and complexity of storytelling give the film a realism that deftly and vividly builds the world around Baartman, while leaving her own interior experience largely open for the viewers' interpretation and projection. Not only does this relieve the filmmakers from presuming too much about what she thought—many details of which remain unknowable or controversial—but it also gives the film the heft of a sledgehammer without ever preaching or pounding home any particular message; it removes the matter from the realm of the debatable and forces us to feel, to confront her humanity with our own.
The film begins after Baartman's death, as the French Naturalist Georges Cuvier is giving a scholarly lecture on her remains, and then turns back to recount the final years of Baartman's life. Bravely portrayed through almost unimaginable humiliations by Cuban Actress Yahima Torres, Baartman, herself, says little in the film, less and less as the film goes on, her voice diminishing in range and volume as she is increasingly erased as a person. Instead of explanations, Kechiche and Torres focus on her troubled gazes, her quiet disintegration. The only thing they give us for certain is that Baartman is dying, from the inside out, starting with broken dreams to a shattered spirit to a disease-infested body. How she reasoned out the choices she made and what her most intimate relations were like cannot be known, but Kechiche uses this fertile blank to project the thousand shades of racism, victimization, desperation, love, sensuality, loneliness, power, and powerlessness. We see glimpses of her as a gifted musician, whose talent is thrown away in preference for her body as a sexual curiosity and her blackness as a foil for multilayered European fantasies, sexual, social, and scientific.
Baartman went to England as a young woman escaping a sorrowful past, running toward big dreams, venturing into the world alone. By the time she is in Europe, she is in way over her head and surrounded only by people she does not recognize for what they are: predators. We cannot know to what degree this lacuna in her understanding is due to her loneliness and desperation, her youth, or her internalization of European racism. But her participation in her own victimization is disturbingly recognizable as the dynamic that plays out in any abusive or exploitative relationship, today and everywhere. She is a proud but damaged young woman, a victim of human trafficking with Stockholm Syndrome, whose status as enslaved or free remains unclear, despite her own and her "business partner's" insistence that she is is not a slave. She is rarely permitted her own volition, so that when she stands up in court and declares—against the will of Abolitionists who are trying to save her—that she is performing in England of her own free will, and insists that she is not a savage or a slave but "an actress," we can't be certain whether she has been coerced into her testimony by her "partner", whether she doesn't clearly understand the full consequences of what she's saying, or whether she declares herself free—resists rescue—out of a pure abhorrence at the idea that she might be looked upon as a slave, even by those who might wish to save her.
The entirety of the film is available on YouTube. It's long and I found much of it difficult to watch for the disturbing subject matter (trigger warning: not recommended for viewers with a history of abuse), but it's a raw and brilliant film for its complexities and its performances.
Here’s a short interview with Yahima Torres, who plays Baartman in the film: