Examining Racial Fetishism Through a Woman Named Sarah Baartman

Note: Due to the lack of historical documentation surrounding her early life, I am unable to use Sara Baartman’s birth name. I acknowledge the problematic nature of the name given to her by Dutch colonists and regret my inability to address her in a way that gives her the respect that she deserves.

In an effort to deconstruct what defines a photograph, the 2014 exhibition, “What is a Photograph?”, at the International Center for Photography displayed the work of 21 artists of varying fame. Curator Carol Squiers notes that she intended for the exhibition itself to serve as an open ended question and an exploration of the use of light, composition, and subject. Tracing the etymology of the word “photograph” to its Greek roots, meaning “light” and “painting” reveals a simple, yet vague, definition: drawing with light. This definition further complicates the question that the exhibit poses, inviting expansion upon traditional notions of photography. In her article, “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects,” Dixa Ramírez examines the effect of photography in furthering colonization and racial oppression in the Dominican Republic. Ramírez focuses on the methods that Dominicans use to “fulfill, refuse, or frustrate” their photographers’ desires. However, Ramírez notes her struggle in investigating the subjects, as the images presented in the photographs are dissonant with the way that the subjects themselves would have identified. Indeed, the photographs even obscure and manipulate the subjects’ inner thoughts at the moment their picture is taken. Arguing that “scientific racism, ethnography, and photography developed… in relationship to each other,” Ramírez establishes a relationship that calls for an expansion of the definition of photography to allow for investigation into its role in advancing colonialist racism.

Exactly two hundred years prior to the opening of the International Center for Photography’s exhibit, Henry Taylor sold a woman given the name Sara Baartman to S. Reaux, a French animal trainer. For at least four years, Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, had been performing in England and Ireland under the stage name, “Hottentot Venus.” Allegedly, Baartman had signed a contract with a free black man–Hendrik Cesars–and an English doctor–William Dunlop–consenting to her display, though her illiteracy deeply complicates the document’s legitimacy. Following her death in 1815, French naturalist Georges Cuvier used her remains to support theories of scientific racism, theorizing that she was the “missing link” between humans and animals. For over 150 years, the Musée de l’Homme in Paris displayed her genitalia, skull, and a cast of her body before returning her remains to South Africa following President Nelson Mandela’s request.

Baartman’s exhibition across Western Europe exemplifies a type of racial fetishism tied to a sexualization and exotification of black women, known as the Jezebel stereotype. Referencing the Biblical heretic of the same name, the Jezebel stereotype twists black women into creatures of aggressive hypersexuality who lust after and seduce white men. Furthered by American slavery, Jezebel developed out of the interactions between white Europeans and black Africans during colonialism. Colonists’ sexualization of black women grew from otherization; they used stereotypes of polygamy and nudity, combined with non-Abrahamic relgious practices, to separate black Africans from white Europeans. Mayjee Rothas notes that enslaved black women suffered a forced categorization into the “virgin-whore sexual dichotomy” furthered by their race and legal position as property. Rothas’ assertion extends beyond enslaved black women, aiding in an explanation of the birth of Jezebel. As the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman not only fits into Jezebelized role, but also echoes Ramírez’s examination of visual colonialism, extending her theory beyond the two dimensions. Indeed, Sara Baartman’s exhibition, both during life and after her death, effectively transforms her into a living, dynamic photograph. By relegating her to a photograph, Baartman’s owners both mute and colonize her, drawing with light to create a manipulated image of a black woman.

Advancing that she considers “race as inseparable from gender,” Ramírez notes how slave owners’ capitalization on black women as tools for increasing their property “ensured that black women became symbols of promiscuity and hypersexuality.” Though not a part of the institution of American slavery, Baartman’s objectification by her owner, along with Cuvier’s (and subsequently the Musée de L’Homme’s) commodification of her sexual organs supports this claim. During her time in London, Baartman’s owners compelled her to perform in freak shows. This type of display otherized her, and like a photograph, captured her in a moment in time in a specific way. In their biography on Baartman, Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully share how on these Piccadilly freak show stages, Baartman was “looked at… not as a fellow human being but as an… object of nature… grotesque, a freak, an animal.” Indeed, caricatures drawn of Baartman render her with a large body and tend to focus on the size of her buttocks; a French print titled La Belle Hottentot shows Baartman nearly fully nude on a platform while men and women stare at her behind, mouths agape in expressions of shock. She covers one breast and stares directly out of the print, enticing the viewer in to participate in the act of voyeurism in a Jezebel-like fashion. 

Baartman’s death did not end her otherization or fetishization. After Cuvier dissected her body without her consent, he used his findings to justify his theories of scientific racism, classifying Baartman as Boschimanne, his closest possible classification to apes. Her display in the Musée de l’Homme placed her in a position facing away from viewers, as to draw attention to her buttocks. The additional preservation and display of her genitals further twisted Baartman into a sexualized object to gawk at. The museum draws with light to form its own Jezebelized image of who–or in their eyes, what–Baartman was.

Writing, “I have come to take you away – / away from the poking eyes / of the man-made monster,” Diana Ferrus, a poet of Khoikhoi descent, captures the drive for the reappropriation of Baartman’s image, as well as her remains. In May of 2002, the French government finally returned Baartman’s remains to South Africa, fulfilling one part of Ferrus’ wish. However, the caricatured, exotified version of Baartman continues to exist. Additionally, Sadiah Qureshi indicates how the lack of records, journals, or other texts written by Baartman problematizes the retelling of her history as a story told about her, not by her. Indeed, African artists’ reclaiming of Baartman as their own symbol, rather than a colonized one, attempts to combat this lack of agency. Interacting with her image as a method of analyzing what it means to be an African Diasporic artist navigating through anti-black spaces, photographer Lyle Ashton Harris places model Renée Valerie Cox against a background devoid of much light. Breasts and buttocks accentuated by metal attachments, echoing depictions of Baartman’s body, Cox stares directly out of the photograph. Boldly, she questions the observer’s role in viewing the photograph, enticing them in on her own terms.

Works Cited

Crais, Clifton C., and Pamela Scully. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: a Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Dixa Ramírez; Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects. Small Axe 1 July 2018; 22 (2 (56)): 144–160. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-6985831

Ferrus, Diana. “A Poem for Sarah Baartman.” Sara, I am Tara, May 4, 2017. https://saraiamtara.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/a-poem-for-sarah-baartman/.

International Center For Photography.” LensCulture. Accessed December 2, 2019. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/international-center-for-photography-what-is-a-photograph.

Qureshi, Sadiah. “Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus.’” History of Science 42, no. 2 (June 2004): 233–57. doi:10.1177/007327530404200204.

Rojas, Maythee. Women of Color and Feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009.

“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman.” Sara “Saartjie” Baartman | South African History Online, August 16, 2013. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman.

Strecker, Alexander. “What Is a Photograph? – Photographs from the Exhibition at the 

“What Is a Photograph?” International Center of Photography. International Center of Photography, January 25, 2017. https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/what-is-a-photograph.

Wilder, Kelley E. “‘photography’, etymology of.” In The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. : Oxford University Press, 2005. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662716.001.0001/acref-9780198662716-e-1206.

One thought on “Examining Racial Fetishism Through a Woman Named Sarah Baartman”

  1. Davi, I appreciate that you gave context for the exhibition and articulated how Carol Squiers defined photography in the show. This definition—drawing with light—provides a contrast between the aesthetic quality of visual arts and the narratives behind those images, which is well-demonstrated with the connection to Ramírez and colonization in the Dominican Republic. All of these points lead up to the woman given the name Sara Baartman, and you told her story with immense respect for who she was and the agency she was robbed of throughout her life. Ending with the contemporary photography used to combat the injustice Baartman faced is a clever way to reconnect to the importance of photography that was introduced in your first paragraph, as well as its flaws as a method of documentation.

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