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Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot"

Deborah Willis

Publication Year: 2010

As a young South African woman of about twenty, Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” was brought to London and placed on exhibit in 1810. Clad in the Victorian equivalent of a body stocking, and paraded through the streets and on stage in a cage she became a human spectacle in London and Paris. Baartman’s distinctive physique became the object of ridicule, curiosity, scientific inquiry, and desire until and after her premature death. The figure of Sarah Baartman was reduced to her sexual parts.


Black Venus 2010 traces Baartman’s memory in our collective histories, as well as her symbolic history in the construction and identity of black women as artists, performers, and icons. The wide-ranging essays, poems, and images in Black Venus 2010 represent some of the most compelling responses to Baartman. Each one grapples with the enduring legacy of this young African woman who forever remains a touchstone for black women.

Contributors include: Elizabeth Alexander, Holly Bass, Petrushka A Bazin, William Jelani Cobb, Lisa Gail Collins,  Renée Cox, J. Yolande Daniels, Carole Boyce Davies, Leon de Wailly, Manthia Diawara, Diana Ferrus, Cheryl Finley, Nikky Finney, Kianga K. Ford, Terri Francis, Sander Gilman, Renée Green, Joy Gregory, Lyle Ashton Harris, Michael D. Harris, Linda Susan Jackson, Kellie Jones, Roshini Kempadoo, Simone Leigh, Zine Magubane, E. Ethelbert Miller, Robin Mitchell, Charmaine Nelson, Tracey Rose, Radcliffe Roye, Bernadette Searle, Lorna Simpson, Debra S. Singer, Penny Siopis, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Michele Wallace, Carla Williams, Carrie Mae Weems, J. T. Zealy, and the editor.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

... my sincere gratitude to Carla Williams for helping me to shape this project and for our years of collaborating, researching, and seeking out articles, essays, and artwork. I also thank all of the contributors who submitted their work for this project as well as friends, researchers, and writers whose work addresses the issues raised by the life of Sarah Baartman. Without their labors, this volume would ...

Prologue: The Venus Hottentot (1825)

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pp. 1-2

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Introduction: The Notion of Venus

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pp. 3-12

... of art, critical writings, poetry, and prose on and around the subject of Sarah, or Saartjie, Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” has been a long time coming. The contributions in this collection are scholarly and lyrical, historical and reflexive, capturing the spirit of a new body of literature about Baartman. In 1991, I first read an article in the Village Voice titled “Venus Envy”1 by Lisa Jones, ...

Part I: Sarah Baartman in Context

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1. The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Toward an Inconography of Female Sexuality

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pp. 15-31

One of the classic works of nineteenth-century art records the ideas of both the sexualized woman and the black woman. Edouard Manet’s Olympia, painted in 1862–1863, first shown in the salon of 1865, documents the merger of these two images. (See Figure 3.) The conventional wisdom concerning Manet’s painting states that the model, Victorine Meurend, is “obviously naked rather than conventionally nude,”1 and that her pose ...

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2. Another Means of Understanding the Gaze: Sarah Bartmann in the Development of Nineteenth-Century French National Identity

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pp. 32-46

Mrs. Mathews seemed surprised that females would join in the viewing of Bartmann, and even more by their participation in her ill treatment. Nevertheless, Mrs. Mathews still relegates Bartmann to a subhuman status, remarking that “even a Hottentot” can “resent brutality.” It is not clear what type of authority was needed to “subdue her resentment,” although the quote from the London Times indicates that her handler was ...

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3. Which Bodies Matter?: Feminism, Post-Structuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the "Hottentot Venus"

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pp. 47-61

... to advance an argument on gender and colonialism, gender and science, or gender and race must, it seems, quote Sander Gilman’s “White Bodies, Black Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” First published in a 1985 issue of Critical Inquiry, the article has been reprinted in several anthologies. It is cited by virtually every scholar ...

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4. Exhibit A: Private Life without a Narrative

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pp. 62-67

... that explores the space of liminal constructions through the body of the “black” female.1 This liminal space is a physiological threshold with psychological dimensions that has been instrumental to symbolic and discursive order. The biologic construction “female” applies to humans and animals and is not synonymous with the cultural distinction or, perhaps, discipline of the “feminine.” The ...

5. crucifix

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pp. 68

Part II: Sarah Baartman's Legacy in Art and Art History

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6. Historic Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth

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pp. 71-86

... and lends credence to myth. Similarly, visual corroboration of scientific theory enhances its power and extends its reach. Given this, it is not surprising that those who try to make such meaning have eagerly sought visual evidence that can explain or confirm racialized myths and theories. Producers of images have been a part of these systems of meaning-making, and some have used their ...

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7. Reclaiming Venus: The Presence of Sarah Bartmann in Contemporary Art

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pp. 87-95

... and writers in recent years have created works reclaiming the historical figure of Sarah, or Saartje, Bartmann. Exhibited, ostensibly as a paradigm of what her culture valued as physical beauty, Bartmann was viewed by European audiences as a grotesque yet exotic, deviant yet desirable, presentation of black sexuality. Her presence in European popular culture extended far beyond her five ...

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8. Playing with Venus: Black Women Artists and the Venus Trope in Contemporary Visual Art

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pp. 96-106

... crowd around fires where some are suspended in anticipation of a cannibalistic feast; a black woman’s anatomy is shown in a series of frontal and profile photographs with accompanying text about the relationship of her physiognomic characteristics to her character and capacity; a pickaninny struggles to free himself from bonds. These are the images that we avoid but still expect to find in museum archives, in private collections, and, most recently, recycled in the new frenzy ...

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9. Talk of the Town

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pp. 107-111

... of Seydou Keïta’s photographs opened in 1997 in SoHo, I was intrigued by the statement made by a West African colleague of mine: This is exactly like it was in those days. That yellow convertible, the first Cadillac in Mali, everyone remembers as belonging to Sylla, the antique dealer in Bamako. And this one, with the long tribal scars from his sideburns to his chin, must have been a Mossi soldier. The one over there’s a grande dame with her fancy scarf, her gold rings alongside the ...

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10. The "Hottentot Venus" in Canada: Modernism, Censorship, and the Racial Limits of Female Sexuality

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pp. 112-125

... in the memories of my Canadian undergraduate education as a student of western art history.1 If I had been given a penny for every time a professor had lectured on Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863; see Figure 3), only to refuse to discuss the conspicuous presence of the black maid, I would be quite a wealthy woman today. Noting the historical compulsion to erase her presence, Lorraine O’Grady has argued that ...

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11. A.K.A. Saartjie: The "Hottentot Venus" in Context (Some Recollections and a Dialogue), 1998/2004

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pp. 126-143

A decade ago I put together a proposal for an exhibition on the image of the Hottentot Venus. Titled “Reclaiming Venus,” the show was motivated by numerous African American women cultural practitioners who began to take up the theme in the late twentieth century. My first inspirations were visual artists Renee Green, Tana Hargest, Lorna Simpson, Carla Williams, and Deborah Willis, and writers Elizabeth Alexander, Lisa ...

12. little sarah

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pp. 144

Part III: Sarah Baartman and Black Women as Public Spectacle

13. The Greatest Show on Earth: For Saartjie Baartman, Joice Heth, Anarcha of Alabama, Truuginini, and Us All

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pp. 147-148

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14. The Imperial Gaze: Venus Hottentot, Human Display, and World's Fairs

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pp. 149-154

From his prison cell in Italy in the thirties, Gramsci noted the difficulty of translating a revolutionary strategy that produced success in pre-industrial Russia to the more complicated and variegated conditions of post–World War I Europe. Pre-revolutionary Russia, with its long-delayed modernization, its swollen state apparatus and bureaucracy, its relatively undeveloped civil society and low level of capitalist development, ...

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15. Cinderella Tours Europe by Cheryl Finley

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pp. 155-162

... of clever wit and passion for historical inquiry, Joy Gregory has created a series of photographs that might forever change the image of Cinderella and the idea of Europe, past and present. In Cinderella Tours Europe, Gregory has photographed famous buildings, monuments, and cities associated with the construction of a popular image of Europe, such as the famed Sagrada Familia Church by Antoni Gaud

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16. Mirror Sisters: Aunt Jemima as the Antonym/Extension of Saartjie Bartmann

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pp. 163-179

... began her public career as a spectacle in minstrelsy. She was a white man for much of the early part of her career and the “knowledge that the black woman was really a white man was an integral part of the pageant.”1 She began a second stage in her career at the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago where a black woman portrayed and personified her. She was a product shill but she became the ...

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17. My Wife as Venus by E. Ethelbert Miller

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pp. 180-182

... Jasmine-Simone was born at George Washington University Medical Hospital, I had an interesting conversation with my wife Denise. I recall her holding our first-born child against her chest and mentioning how beautiful she was and how blessed we were. My wife, still beaming, then said, “And she has all her toes.” In many ways this remark told me how deeply my wife had been affected by ...

Part IV: Iconic Women in the Twentieth Century

18. agape

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pp. 185

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19. Black/Female/Bodies Carnivalized in Spectacle and Space

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pp. 186-198

... the black female body obtains significance given the location, in the semiotic field, of black bodies and female bodies historically. Even so, the black female body carries its own set of resonances, also historically locatable, which demand independent articulation. The epigrammatic quote which leads this paper is taken from “Black Body Politics” by Afro-Caribbean scholar/activist Alrick Cambridge, ...

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20. Sighting the "Real" Josephine Baker: Methods and Issues of Black Star Studies

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pp. 199-209

... on a celebrity such as Josephine Baker, the essential work is not separating fact from rumor, but understanding the ways in which intertwined strands of rumors and facts about her circulate and gain meaning among a variety of believing audiences, constituting what Dyer refers to in the epigraph as the constructed existence or public persona, which is independent of her screen fiction. Baker’s ...

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21. The Hoodrat Theory

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pp. 210-212

... said it all: “We Care About Your Sister, But You Have To Care About Ours, Too.” The slogan explained the position of the student activists at Spelman College whose protests over Nelly’s 2004 “Tip Drill” video led the artist to cancel his scheduled appearance for a bone marrow drive on the campus. But in a real sense, their point went beyond any single rapper or any single video and went ...

Epilogue: I've Come to Take You Home (Tribute to Sarah Bartmann Written in Holland, June 1998)

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pp. 213-214


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pp. 215-222


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pp. 223-228


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pp. 229-238

E-ISBN-13: 9781439902066

Publication Year: 2010