- Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot.” ed. by Deborah Willis
In this collection of scholarly essays, poetry, visual art, and reflective prose, Deborah Willis has compiled a truly interdisciplinary analysis of the life and image of Sarah Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus.” Born in South Africa in 1789, Baartman became one of the most infamous examples of the European obsession with black women’s bodies when she was placed on display (often in a cage while wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit) in London in 1810 and in Paris. Although Baartman was not the only black woman to be exhibited in such brutal fashion, she has become one of the most notorious examples of nineteenth-century theories of racial difference. Because scholarly discussions of the racial politics that turned Baartman’s body into a spectacle sometimes fail to address the psychological and spiritual horror of Baartman’s experience fully, Willis’s inclusion of poetry and visual art provides an added metaphysical dimension that complements the scholarly articles in this book. Black Venus 2010 is divided into four parts. The first situates Sarah Baartman in the context of nineteenth-century theories of race, ethnicity, and gender. The second explores Baartman’s legacy in visual art and art history. The third centers on Baartman as a public spectacle, while the fourth discusses the image of black women in popular culture and the entertainment industry throughout the twentieth century.
Following a prologue in verse by Elizabeth Alexander, this anthology opens with a slightly revised version of Sander Gilman’s classic essay “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” here retitled “The Hottentot and the Prostitute.” Although [End Page 178] much scholarship on Baartman by critical race theorists and feminist scholars (such as T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Black Venus, 1999) has been published since Gilman’s study, it remains a foundational text, and this anthology built upon it. Essays by sociologist Zine Magubani and literary critic Carol Boyce Davies illustrate this point. Zine Magubani’s “Which Bodies Matter?” suggests that contemporary scholars anachronistically and incorrectly ascribe modern ideas of “blackness” to Baartman, not realizing that her status as a Khoikhoi set her apart from other Africans. Magubani dispels the assumption that “Baartman’s color and sexual difference not only marked her as ‘different’ but also rendered her fundamentally the same as all other ‘black’ people” and that “what constitutes ‘Africanity’ and ‘blackness’ have remained relatively unchanged over time” (52). In contrast, Carol Boyce Davies’s “Black/Female/Bodies Carnivalized” explores the enduring significance of Baartman’s life and image through her discussion of present-day carnival and dancehall culture in the Caribbean. She analyzes the popular butterfly dance as an example of black women boldly claiming public space as they express a sense of power and pleasure through dance, which presents a stark contrast to the vulnerable position of Baartman standing still, naked, and mute on a platform to entertain white voyeurs.
This anthology is unified by its authors’ revisionist, theoretical approach to understanding the life and image of Sarah Baartman. While the interdisciplinary format expands our understanding of Baartman’s life and legacy, future scholarship should include deeper analysis of Baartman’s image in relation to American popular culture, especially in the realms of film, television, and video. For example, how might the celebration of a white American beauty icon such as Marilyn Monroe, who was praised, paid, and objectified for her voluptuous physique throughout the 1950s, compare to Baartman’s life? How might current-day celebrations of well-endowed black and Latina celebrities such as tennis champion Serena Williams, hip-hop video icon Buffie the Body, and music/film stars Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé Knowles compare to Baartman’s experience? Although these celebrities certainly exercise a much higher level of authority over their bodies, their images still take on a life of their own—providing yet another source of entertainment for latter-day voyeurs. Further study of Baartman placed in proper historical context and in conversation with current...