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“To Know a Hottentot Venus Feminist: Feminist Epistemology and the Artworks Surrounding Sarah Bartman” by Kayleigh Perkov

Taken from her home in South Africa and displayed across Europe for her “exotic” body, Sarah Baartman (1789-1815) was transformed from an individual to a symbol of Otherness. Since the 1980s, Baartman has re-emerged as part of a discourse on post-colonialism, gender, sexuality and race theory. The scientific “facts” of Baartman have been refuted by Stephen Jay Gould[1], explored and examined in scholarly discourse by Sander Gilman[2] and Sadiah Qureshi[3], and reflected upon by countless individuals who have looked both at her history and their own lives. This paper attempts to examine how the contemporary artists Renée Green, Penny Siopis, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and Tracey Rose have used Sarah Baartman to explore the mechanisms surrounding the construction of truth.  This exploration of Baartman’s status as a symbol is not a simplistic reclamation or refutation; instead, contemporary artists are dealing with the complex task of deconstructing the ideologies her image represented. The readings of these pieces are examined within the framework of feminist epistemology, which examines how the construction of knowledge is influenced by gender. Knowledge is generally seen as an entity collected by individuals and preserved by institutions and culture. Feminist epistemology critiques this assumption and asserts that knowledge is generally constructed by men of the same socio-economic group and the biases of these individuals carry into the knowledge they construct. Additionally, feminist epistemology suggests new strategies for knowledge creation. This paradigm is especially pertinent in discussing Baartman; her story confronts the extremes and consequences of knowledge creation as a hegemonic endeavor. Ultimately, the artworks created around Baartman can be seen as a process of dismantling the traditional structure upon which knowledge is built and a movement towards a more equitable approach to understanding.

Baartmaan was a member of the Khoe-San group of Southern Africa; the people of this group were known as the “Khoekhoe,” meaning “men of men”.[4] But to Europeans, the Khoe-San were grouped together with several other African tribes to form the Hottentots. Europeans viewed the Hottentots as less than human, placed on the Great Chain of Being between Europeans and Orangutans. An 1828 text claims that, “the mind of the Hottentot … is inferior to the European; and their organization is also less perfect”.[5] This framing of the Hottentots served to justify cruel treatment and bolster a false sense of European superiority cloaked in objective science. However, despite the often exhaustive cataloguing of supposed facts, from a contemporary standpoint, these texts are painfully subjective and exploitive.

Early in her life Baartman lived in the Camdeboo or “Green Valley”.[6] Baartman grew up on a Dutch colonist’s farm in this region; it is here where she would have been given the name Saartjie.[7]  Meaning “little sarah”, Saartjie is not a comment on her physical stature, but rather a sign of servitude, oddly mingled with feelings of affection.[8] Saartjie’s last name, Baartman, means “bearded man” in Dutch and connotes the qualities of being uncouth, savage and uncivilized; it is likely that this name would have been given to the forty or so people in her group who worked for the Dutch colonists in the region.[9] In the mid 1790s Baartman was sold into servitude and worked in various Cape Town households; according to historians Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Baartman “was a slave in all but name”.[10]

It is at this point in her biography when Baartman’s body began to shape the course of her life. Baartman had a genetic condition known as Steatopygia, which causes a high degree of fat to build up in the buttocks as well as an elongated labia.[11] By 1808, Baartman was forced to work at a local hospital for sailors, showing her naked body for those who would pay; Crais and Scully point out that “when the sailors in the hospital looked at Sara, they bound her in the ribbons of European desire to “know” the Hottentot Woman and in their own longings for sexual entertainment. She became a special kind of show, a Hottentot Venus … In all likelihood Sara became something of an early nineteenth-century exotic dancer and may have provided sex as well.” [12]

In 1810 Alexander Dunlop, a doctor in Cape Town who would have seen Baartman at the hospital, began to scheme of ways to bring Baartman to Europe, where he could exhibit Baartman and thus escape his role as a poor and obscure military doctor.[13] To do this Dunlop had to draw up a contract, which promised no specific amount of money to Baartman or her proprietor, but guaranteed that both would accompany Dunlop to England. It seems that Baartman told an acquaintance “who will give me anything here?”[14] If it were true that Baartman had already been acting as a “Hottentot Venus” for a number of years, why wouldn’t she take an opportunity to leave Cape Town? The traditional telling of Baartman’s story suggests a level of extreme naivety, but this does not do her justice. She was not an ignorant, hopeful, young girl; rather, she was a woman of roughly thirty years who entered her new life hopeful, though not delusional.


Baartman’s life in England took place in the sordid and salacious Piccadilly Street.[15] Shortly after her arrival, the following advertisement ran in London’s Morning Post :


THE HOTTENTOT VENUS–Just arrived (and may be seen between the hours of One and Five o’clock in the evening, at No. 225, Piccadilly), from the Banks of the River Gamtoos, on the Borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect Specimen of that race of people. From this extraordinary phenomena [sic] of nature, the Public will have an opportunity of judging how far she exceeds any description given by historians of that tribe of the human species. She is habited in the dress of her country, with all the rude ornaments usually worn by those people. She has been seen by the principal Literati in this Metropolis, who were all greatly astonished, as well as highly gratified, with the sight of so wonderful a specimen of the human race. She has been brought to this country at a considerable expense, by Kendriek Cerar [sic], and their stay will be but of short duration.–To commence on Monday next, the 24th inst.–Admittance, 2s. each.[16]


At this time, London had a longstanding history and culture of freak shows. Previous exhibitions included Tono Maria, the “Venus of South America”, and individuals from Ireland with gigantism. In order to attract an audience, broadsheets where created that depicted Baartman in full length (Fig.1).[17] She stands near a chair, wearing little besides the trappings of a Western vision of the African exotic. Exhibited in a tight flesh toned body suit, she was ordered to turn around and walk back and forth. Individuals could pay extra to touch her or to have a private viewing.[18] During this time, Baartman increasingly represented Otherness in the popular European imagination. As she truly began to enter mainstream culture, her form was reproduced and exaggerated in many caricatures (Fig. 2). Most likely attracted by this public attention, Zachary Macaulay, a leading abolitionist, sought out Baartman and her handlers in October of 1810.[19] Macaulay desired to ascertain whether Baartman was a consenting partner in her display, or if she was being held against her will.[20] The cruel treatment of Baartman confirmed Macaulay’s suspicions that Baartman was not a willing participant in her situation.[21] After a campaign of appeals, Macaulay succeeded in persuading the King’s Bench to hear the case surrounding Baartman’s consent.[22] During this trail, most likely as a precautionary measure, a new contract was created that framed Baartman as a fortunate employee.[23] However, this contract was in fact little more than a protective façade, and there is no evidence that Baartman ever received any of the benefits alluded to in the contract.[24] Sadly, it seems Baartman may have had some faith in the legitimacy of the contract, and at the very least kept it with her until the time of her death.[25]


During the trial, Baartman was brought in for questioning and her responses echo the language of the newly created contract.[26] Baartman’s words paint a picture of a happy woman: she claimed that she came to England of her own consent and had no wish to return home, her only complaint being that she was often cold.[27] There is no way to ascertain the truth of Baartman’s words, though it seems very probable that her responses were coached. In November of 1810, the court declared that Baartman was indeed a willing partner in her exhibition, and after this verdict Macaulay abandoned his campaign for Baartman.[28] Far from leading to any justice, the trial led to greater sensationalism surrounding Baartman, with some even mocking the failed trail:


He went unto the Judges grave, Whose mercies never fail;

And there, in gallant stile, and brave, Set forth the ladie’s tale.

He said, a man of cruel heart, (whose name is now forgot),

Did show, for pay, the hinder part

Of this fair HOTTENTOT.

That in this land of libertie

Where freedom groweth still,

No one can show another’s tail

Against the owner’s will.

And wished my lordes to send some one,

To know whether or not

This rare exhibiting was done

To please the HOTTENTOT.[29]


After the trial, Baartman’s life resumed as it had before, though many details are difficult to establish. In December of 1811 Baartman was baptized in Manchester, which changed her name from Saartje to Sarah.[30] In September of 1814, Baartman was taken to Paris and came under the control of S. Reaux, an animal trainer who would often place a collar around Baartman’s neck and parade her in Parisian cafes.[31] In March of 1815, Reaux brought Baartman to George Cuvier, a prominent biologist, who had the largest collection of natural specimens in the world and was given to classifying everything from piles of manure to people.[32] Even today he is a venerated figure to many in the natural sciences; seen as the father of comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology, it is thought that Charles Darwin could not have formulated his thoughts on evolution without the work of Cuvier.[33] However, the histories of the powerful and successful often contain hidden stories of greed and evil, and this is certainly the case in the story of Cuvier. It is hard to underestimate the impact that Cuvier had not only on Baartman, but on the course of history, as their meeting became a cornerstone in the foundational texts of the life sciences.[34] Baartman was made to pose for Cuvier and his peers in the cold hall of a museum in the nude. However, Baartman would not allow the men to examine her genitals.[35] Cuvier writes “she kept her apron concealed … either between her thighs or still more deeply”.[36] Baartman died in the winter of 1815, just five years after she left South Africa.[37] Less than a month after her death, Cuvier dissected her body over a number of days.[38] In death Baartman could not stop Cuvier in his desires, and during the dissection Cuvier paid special attention to her genitals, which contained signs of physical difference Cuvier had hoped to ascertain.[39] The conclusion of Baartman’s story exemplifies the ferocious power of science and knowledge. While individuals dictated the awful course of Baartman’s life, it was institutionalized science that could touch her even in death. For over one hundred and fifty years, Baartman’s remains laid in the jars Cuvier had assigned for her. It dictated not only how she was seen but fashioned her as an icon of Otherness, a physical symbol of the innate “superiority” of white men. Men of power like Cuvier held (and arguably still hold) the power to categorize and dictate the facts of our world. With any reader the story of Baartman will inspire the immediate feelings of disgust and shame, but in many, these feelings blossom outwards to a desire to closely examine how knowledge is created in our society and who has been exploited to run the cogs of ideology.


Renée Green and the Silent Hottentot Venus

Renée Green uses Baartman’s story to critique the power of language in knowledge creation. By treating Cuvier’s scientific text as an art object, Green creates a space that encourages the deconstruction of supposed fact and illuminates the hubris of the fact maker. This deconstruction leads the viewer to perceive the language of facts not as benign entities, but as a sight of potential trauma, the construction of knowledge. At the exhibition Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans (1989) at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Green exhibited her instillation Sa Main Charmante (Fig. 3). The piece consists of a soapbox in the foreground labeled “La Belle Hottentote” topped with a set of footprints, toes facing away from the viewer.  On the viewer’s far right is a spotlight. This spotlight is directly across from a peephole box, which contains an 18th-century caricature of Baartman. The presence of the spotlight causes the caricature to be illuminated and the viewer of the caricature to be purposefully blinded by the light source. The back wall has a cascade of slats bearing text about Baartman. While discussing her own body of work, Green often comments on her fascination with the power of language. Being herself an academic, Green develops ideas from perusing bookstores and through hours of painstaking research.  Her own studies have drawn her to such figures such as Edmund Laforest, a French writer who drowned himself by tying a Larousse dictionary around his neck, so tired was he of being penned in by the language of his colonizer.[40] Green’s research also drew her to the story of Sarah Baartman. This research is clearly demonstrated by the readings printed on the slats that hang in the background of her instillation. The text reads as follows:




Two distinguishable texts can be detected within this single jarring work. The first line, and every odd-numbered line which follows, is a description of Baartman’s life. Not taken directly from a single source, one can assume that these are mostly Green’s words, a distillation of her research. On the contrary, the second line and every even-numbered line that follows is taken directly from a treatise of Cuvier’s.[41] If one starts with the odd lines of text, we see a simplistic rendering of the generally articulated story of Baartman’s life. The text starts with the naming of Baartman. Green often comments about the significance that comes with naming: everyone names things, everyone classifies things in some way. But the West has been able to enforce its names or attach them–to make people accept certain names. “Naming is empowering as well as something that can be confining.” [42]


Green’s text opens with “BAPTISED SAARTJIE BAARTMAN, PRONOUNCED SAR”. The allusion to Baartman’s baptism as the source of naming is a direct reference to the power play of being given a name, an identity from an outsider. This line ends with the sound of someone choking on their own words; unable to fully utter Baartman’s given Dutch name, the first syllable is all that comes forth. Fragmenting the name given by the colonizer is an outward sign of inner trauma. This trauma manifests itself in language, emphasizing that language is truly a site of resistance. As theorist bell hooks argues, “the oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew. Our words are not without meaning, they are an action, a resistance.


Language is also a place of struggle”.[43] Green’s lines later allude to the fact that Sarkay means “little Sarah”. This fact has nothing to do with physical stature and everything to do with social position. In Baartman’s time it was customary to use the label “little” as a symbol, meaning she is under the service of someone.[44] The odd lines go on to tell of Baartman’s life, her exhibition in London and Paris, and her eventual death in 1815.


The even lines taken from Cuvier’s text were composed after Baartman’s death and discuss her dissection at his hands. The focus is on the study of Baartman’s body and what Cuvier had been able to glean from the experience. It is clear in his language that this is a moment of glory forCuvier. He draws a moment of commonality between him and his colleagues, reminding them that they were all able to view her during her stay in their capital, and come to the same conclusions as he did regarding the nature of her physical form.  He then shifts to the importance of his findings; Baartman’s body thus becomes a symbol of his own scientific achievements. By presenting Baartman’s body, Cuvier adds what he views as “essential facts” to the body of Western scientific knowledge. The pride in Cuvier’s text highlights the possible subjectivity in his presumed science. No longer the faceless practitioner, Cuvier the man is illuminated, his own language displaying his arrogance and pride. Significantly, Green places Cuvier’s text within quotations. While this is an appropriate conventional grammatical device, it also stresses the action of Cuvier’s discourse, placing him in the role of authoritative agent by emphasizing his role of speaker. Green’s strategy of utilizing the scientific discourse surrounding Baartman as an object in her instillation demonstrates her tendency to question the conclusions of those she researches. As art historian Elizabeth Brown comments, the text when “presented in this manner, fixed on a panel or in a museum case, the rhetoric itself becomes the object of – rather then the vehicle – for scrutiny”.[45] This action of displaying the words of authority is an act of objectification; she thus turns academic fact into critical artistic inquiry. Together, both of these texts create doubt in the language of fact; Green claims “we must become aware of the constructedness of every part of our experience and not just take it for granted”.[46] Her own manipulation of text juxtaposes primary sources and generally accepted fact, expanding the arena of meaning.  As an artistic piece, the words take on self-effacing meanings meant to be viewed with ridicule.[47]


Through allusions to Baartman’s body, Green creates powerful sites of resistance and remembrance. At first glance, though this piece is about Baartman, a woman made famous through the contours of her body, the actual body is notably absent. In truth Baartman’s body can be found everywhere; in the form of footprints, in the caricature in the peepbox, and it has even been suggested it can be found in the shape of the instillation itself. The body evoked through absence and mere suggestions of the body begs the question of what Baartman is without her body. European colonizers gained whatever base knowledge they did solely through examination of her physical form. As knowledge seekers today, we can gain so much from the story of Baartman without the sordid spectacle of display. The only unambiguous representation of Baartman’s body can be found in the caricature in the peep box.  This caricature (Fig. 4) was made during Baartman’s lifetime, and features Baartman standing on a soapbox while Europeans gawk.  This particular caricature is unique in its critique of the European viewers.  While the four Europeans gawk at Baartman’s backside, a small dog examines the backside of a man in a kilt, creating a parallel between the Europeans and the curious dog. The spotlight directly across from the peep box illuminates the caricature while at the same time, as art critic E. Shepard notes, “harshly spotlights the viewer who is caught in the act of peeking and thus implicated in Bartmann’s humiliation and the inhumanity of her keepers”.[48] Together the caricature and the spotlight turn Baartman’s spectators into a spectacle themselves. Like the appropriated text of Cuvier, their curiosity and voyeurism becomes a site for critique. The soapbox in the installation is a copy of the one Baartman stands upon in the caricature; both are stamped with the phrase “La Belle Hottentot”. On the top of the box are a pair of footprints that face away from the viewer; if Baartman were present she would be presenting her backside to the viewer. This action not only alludes to Baartman’s story but confronts it; bell hooks has commented on this tendency: “there is an effort to remember that is expressive of the need to create spaces where one is able to redeem and reclaim the past legacies of pain, suffering, and triumph in ways that transform present reality. Fragments of memory are not simply represented as flat documentary but constructed”.[49] Baartman was made into the quintessential “other”; by using her figure, Green creates a space of otherness that questions and confronts traditional knowledge construction. Ultimately, Green engages with feminist epistemology by pointing to the constructed nature of scientific facts, which are not purely objective or benign, but instead as Green makes clear are created by individuals with their own ethos.


Penny Siopis and the Pathologized Hottentot Venus

South African artist Penny Siopis chooses to juxtapose Sarah Baartman with Ida Bauer, the famous patient of Sigmund Freud in Dora and the Other Woman (Fig. 5). This juxtaposition elucidates the pathologizing process that occurred with both Baartman and Bauer. This process transformed these women, and women in general, into a symbol of potential disease. Siopis’ piece makes clear that the supposed objective observations that are the building blocks of knowledge are in fact not always objective, but rather are influenced by the observer.

Bauer was brought to Freud by her father after they, according to Freud, “were thrown into a state of great alarm by finding…a letter in which she took leave of them because, as she said, she could no longer endure her life”.[50] In Freud’s case study Dora, an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), he diagnoses Bauer (under the pseudonym Dora to protect her identity) as hysterical through his techniques of dream interpretation and psychoanalysis. His conclusion is that her hysteria stems from an unconscious love for her father’s mistress and sexual advances from the mistresses’ husband. Displeased with their therapy sessions, Bauer terminates her relationship with Freud, which Freud considers a failure on his part.

Siopis’ painting features a black woman, presumably Sarah Baartman, who hides her face beneath a sheath covered with 19th-century caricatures of herself.  She stands in a shadowy, ambiguous landscape, surrounded by lavish curtains and a red floor strewn with pictures and assorted objects. Baartman’s shroud covered with caricatures of herself suggests a blurring of identity and perception, with Baartman literally being engulfed by the stereotypes created during her lifetime. This in itself is an accurate representation of how she was viewed during her life: an extreme approximation of her body. While Bauer is alluded to in the title of the piece, she is only found within the objects that Freud found in her dreams.  The shoes and jewel boxes strewn on the red floor are all symbols of female genitals in Freudian analysis, as Freud states, the “jewel-case [Schmuckkästchen] is a favorite expression … for the female genitals”.[51] Like Baartman, Bauer is reduced to a mere icon of female sexuality; Siopis claims that “Dora’s sexuality was fragmented, taken away from her, in a sense by Freud. She was made an object. While her genitals weren’t literally put into a bottle and preserved like Saartjie Baartman, she too was actually objectified and turned into a spectacle”.[52] For an artist as well versed in feminism as Siopis and a world history of so many women being objectified, the question arises of why choose Bauer and Baartman? Siopis addresses this question in an interview with Annie E. Coombes:

White women are often absent from Baartman’s story. I’ve tried to address this. In Dora and the Other Woman I’ve looked at Saartjie Baartman in relation to Freud’s Dora and I have been quite explicit about the relationship here. […] The idea of looking and the idea of objectification was the connecting theme in both those women’s stories. But clearly even within that scenario power relations are played out ‘differently’. That is why I used caricatures. They were obviously representations, I was simply re-representing them. So on this occasion I actually made a direct connection between the way white women’s sexuality was pathologized in psychoanalysis, most of all through Freud, and the image of Saartjie Baartman.”[53]


This view is one that takes all of western knowledge accumulation and notes its tendency to objectify females into academic facts. The role of men and women in the stories of Bauer and Baartman are clear; men are creators of knowledge and women the building blocks of knowledge. Cuvier’s and Freud’s academic backgrounds informs their biases and sexual objectification of each woman. Cuvier, the naturalist, is preoccupied with the anatomy of Baartman’s physique, reducing her to a sexual oddity. Freud, the psychiatrist, reduces Bauer’s mind to sexual neurosis. Both men claim that their findings are inherently objective; even if hypotheses and theories are built within historical contexts, science still begins with the recording of observable “facts”. But from a modern perspective, Cuvier and Freud project their own biases into the observations themselves. For example, Freud’s sexual psychoanalysis can easily be used to analyze his own observations of Dora, as feminist theorist Toril Moi shows:

Freud’s epistemology is clearly phallocentric. The male is the bearer of knowledge; he alone has the power to penetrate women and text; woman’s role is to let herself be penetrated by such truth. Such epistemological phalloecenticism is by no means specifically Freudian; on the contrary, it has so far enjoyed universal sway in our patriarchal civilization, and one could hardly expect Freud to remain untouched by it.[54]


Both Dora and Baartman are pathologized by their male observers. Baartman exemplifies the supposed hypersexuality of African women, while Dora is diagnosed as frigid. By pathologizing these women, their physical and emotional characteristics become diseases.  Pathologizing their characteristics separate them from what is normal and acceptable, giving the men power to diagnose, study, and in the case of Freud, cure. There are greater epistemological impacts in these examples than the victimization of two women. When Cuvier pathologizes Baartman, he is pathologizing a large group of African women, separating them from the “norm”. Freud’s analysis of female frigidity was applied to many women who were unable to achieve sexual arousal with their partners, based on his false belief that mature women should find sexual stimulation in the vagina as opposed to the clitoris.[55]  Ultimately, both Cuvier and Freud represent sociological tendencies and psychoses of their respective times.

While Siopis’ painting could be viewed purely as a parable of victimization, the stories of both Bauer and Baartman display moments of startling agency. Both men failed to understand the female patients that were in their care. Cuvier only “understands” Baartman after she has deceased; only gaining full access to her body after her death, and Freud does not understand Dora until she leaves him. Both women were forced into these relationships by men, Baartman from her handler and Dora from her father. Additionally, both women showed signs of resistance through acts of agency. There are different ways that agency can exist beyond the popular image of the suffragette or activist. Agency can be Baartman refusing to show her body to Cuvier. Agency could be Dora’s refusal to undergo psychoanalysis. While these acts of defiance might seem small, this ability to say “no” to men of such high authority is startling as an action. Freud’s case study of Bauer displays moments where he fails to recognize her intelligence and critical nature. When Freud discloses the connection between the jewel-box and female genitals, Bauer answers him back  “I knew you would say that”.[56] Freud dismisses this reaction as a common response for putting aside knowledge “that emerges from the repressed”.[57] However, it is personally hard for this author not to hear the sigh in Bauer voice as she speaks, and I empathize with her dissatisfaction with the supposed expert who will steer her towards normalcy. It is in this dissatisfaction where the Bauer who effectively ends her treatment with Freud comes through, not just a passive creature handed from her father to Freud, she is a woman with enough gumption and innate wisdom to sigh in the face of “expertise” and leave. Ultimately, the stories of both Baartman and Bauer move beyond the parable of the female as a building block of male knowledge towards symbolic movements of resistance and change.


Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and the Captive Hottentot Venus

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Couple in a Cage (Fig. 6) (1992) was a performance piece under the guise of an ethnographic exhibit. This work demonstrates the power we place in institutions as sources of knowledge; by blindly trusting the authority of display we forfeit our power as knowledge creators. In this performance piece, Fusco and Gomez-Pena are displayed for several hours a day, surrounded by “artifacts” and wearing “native” garb. In truth, much of the supposedly native material was a collection of contemporary objects, such as luchador masks, sunglasses, and a television set. Information placards were displayed on either side of the cage, forming a triptych. One of these placards displayed a detailed history of ethnographic displays; the other described the “history” of the fictitious tribe Fusco and Gomez-Pena supposedly came from, the Mexican “Guatinaui”. Sarah Baartman is described on the first placard, and her image is prominently displayed in the documentary piece made for “Couple in a Cage”. The artists initially supposed that viewers would be able to ascertain the mockery in their performance, Coco Fusco remarks that the “original intent was to create a satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic primitive Other”.[58] However, most viewers were lulled by the authority of the museum into assuming the exhibition was factual. Fusco has remarked upon these odd circumstances in an essay she wrote shortly after the conclusion of this piece:

We did not anticipate that our self-conscious commentary in this practice could be believable. We underestimated public faith in museums as bastions of truth and institutional investment in that role. Furthermore, we did not anticipate that literalism would dominate the interpretation of our work. Consistently from city to city, more than half of our visitors believed our fiction and thought we were “real”.[59]


Ultimately, the Couple in a Cage showcases not only the naivety of the large proportions of the public who blindly trust supposed experts, but questions much of the Western fact formation process, which privileges authority and positivism. In our society, we have institutions that we regard as repositories of knowledge, accepting their declarations even against our own common sense. What more signifies a space of fact and truth than the museum? These days it has become common for pseudoscientific groups to attempt greater credence for their ideas through the creation of museums; over the last several years there has been American museums for Scientologist-based anti-psychiatry and Evangelical creationism. These spaces follow traditional museum strategies to validate their “facts”, such as dioramas, placards, and hands-on exhibits. Like Couple in a Cage, Baartman was exhibited to hordes of people who viewed her as an “other”, relying only on the authority of display. Museum theorist Lisa G. Corrin has discussed the history of museums in relation to power systems:

To speak of the ideological apparatus underlying museum practices is to speak of the
relation among power, representation, and cultural identity; of how history is written
an communicated; of whose history is voiced and whose is silenced. Behind their
often-cavernous halls of cultural relics, museums are places where sacrosanct belief
systems are confirmed on the basis of hierarchies valuing one culture over another.
Art and artifact, style and period, high and low, dominant and marginal – these are the
boundaries museums rely on to sustain “society’s most revered beliefs and values”. […]
Until recently, the museum community has been resistant to the issues raised by this
dialogue, fearful, apparently of controversies that have always arisen whenever
critical art history has been translated into museum practice.[60]


This process of institutionalizing history robs the individual of personal evaluator power, and creates a hierarchy where knowledge (facts added by specialists into a larger body of thought) dominates over wisdom (information based on personal experience). Traditionally, knowledge has been privileged over wisdom and emotion in the realm of knowing, an idea that is itself full of racial and classist undertones. Feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins claims that “the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women survival. In the context of race, gender, and class oppression, the distinction is essential since knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” [61]

This dichotomy between knowledge and wisdom has also been historically transferred onto the male/female dichotomy; feminist philosopher Genevieve Lloyd claims that “the impoverishment of women through the imposition of sexual stereotypes is obvious. Exclusion from reason has meant exclusion from power”.[62] Unsurprisingly, the questions that visitors of the exhibit asked were related to knowledge accumulation. Viewers wanted to know more about the religion of the couple in the cage, about their sexual practices and eating habits. In this particular piece, those that had an emotional response against the exhibit came closer to the artists’ intended response than those that accepted the display as fact. While emotions are often considered a hindrance to “true” meaning, in the case of Couple in a Cage, emotion was essential. Philosopher Alison M. Jaggar, elucidates the powerful role of emotion in knowledge creation; “emotions, then, are wrongly seen as necessarily passive or involuntary responses to the world. Rather, they are ways in which we engage actively and even construct the world”.[63] Based on Fusco’s account, most of the visitors who had a visceral and emotional response to the piece were those that were social or racial minorities, while the middle-class majority was interested in accumulating facts. Fusco noted that a drunken, newly released prisoner sympathetically gave Gomez-Pena his own sweater, and that a black elderly man, horrified, compared his own grandchildren to the “couple in the cage”.[64] The fact-seekers, on the other hand, were the ones who primarily became angry and moralistic when they discovered that the exhibit was false. Their extremist faith in institutions betrayed them.

While one must be wary of revisionist versions of history, it is important to bring up the untold stories that supplement and challenge the standard facts. Individuals must take note of when knowledge was created, who created it, and what sorts of biases or agendas they might have had. Institutionalism has historically been misused, as we have seen with Sarah Baartman. Ethnographies study the exotic, which of course reinforces those who create the study as the norm, the subject becoming the quintessential foil for those who study them. What Couple in a Cage has been able to accomplish from the confines of the other on display is a type of “reverse ethnography”. While on display they where able to observe the observers; what they discovered was a persistent reliance on the authority of supposed facts and the illumination of a knowledge that privileges experience and emotion. It is in this knowledge where the power of the established begins to appear vulnerable and in that vulnerability new strategies can flourish. This space of uncertainty surrounding the authority of institutions can be expanded and spread to the authority we give our identity.


Tracey Rose and the Savior Hottentot Venus

The video piece Ciao Bella (Fig 7) by South African artist Tracey Rose was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001 in the “Plateau of Humankind” exhibition. Rose’s Ciao Bella inspires a new mode of knowing; one that emphasizes the repetition of pre-existing female archetypes instead of organic actions in the construction of identity. By utilizing Baartman’s story, Rose alludes to the history of construction and pathways to change. Ciao Bella involves a three screen video projection and a series of large-scale photographs; it centers around thirteen women who gather around what has been described as a last super-esque table. Such a description is further supported by the fact that there are thirteen women in Rose’s piece, matching the thirteen individuals featured in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The women in Ciao Bella are all Tracey Rose in different guises of femininity. Rose is seated at the far end of the table caked in white powder, which obliterates any facial feature and creates a bald scalp. She continuously punches herself, wearing bulky black and white boxing gloves that are stamped with the phrases “Love Me” or “Fuck Me”. This character is also featured in one of the large-scale photographs hung in the installation space; she is shown punching herself in a shadowy interior, her white powder visible on her black glove a sign of previous punches. There is a “Bunny” girl character clad in what looks like a bondage mask with rabbit ears; she continuously bounces between the other characters.  In contrast to the video, she sits still in her photograph, staring straight ahead with lips pursed as she holds a large gun. A Marie Antoinette character sits slicing a chocolate cake.  In her photograph she is shown in hazy transparency; imposed over a second image of herself, she floats over a city. The redheaded Lolita character sits brooding over a bowl of cherries.  In her photograph she wears red leather maryjane shoes and frilled ankle socks, and sits on the hood of a fire truck while eating a hotdog.  A nun sings excerpts from the sound of music, and in her photograph stands in a white void with her hands reaching out, her head lolling back, eyes rolling heavenwards. A topless mermaid with an afro contemplates her tail. There is, in the words of art critic Tracey Murnick, “a shadowy phantom presence that morphs between sobriety and doing the Charleston”.[65] A matron in a prudish suit overlooks the gathering. Lastly, Sarah Baartman is featured: she is nude with her famous backside generally either facing the viewer or shown in profile, her body tense and hunched. In her photograph Baartman (Fig. 8) is presented in silhouette; standing outdoors nude within a sea of knee-high grass, she stands tensely, her eyes staring straight ahead. The photo has the feel of a documentary, a stolen moment taken in the midst of action. It is strikingly reminiscent of the poses and backgrounds that were painted of Baartman under the oversight of Cuvier (Fig. 9 [missing -ed]).


After viewing Rose’s piece, the power of female stereotypes quickly comes to mind; each of her characters represent an expected female role. Whether that is found in the nagging matron, the overtly sexual Lolita, or Baartaman, a woman turned into the quintessential exotic other. These pre-constructed stereotypes are held up in our society as possible paths of womanhood; they are how we see and categorize the women around us and occasionally how we know ourselves. By critiquing these stereotypes, Rose challenges how we construct the fact of womanhood. Rose gives them voice and action; she reinserts them into our field of vision. Still, the women in Rose’s piece are more than mere reflections of classic archetypes. They display a critique of our very notions of the construction of identity; as Tracey Murnick comments, “there is a subversive laughter in the pastiche-effect of parodic practices in which the original, the authentic, and the real are themselves constituted as effects”.[66]

Rose displays performativity through each of these roles. Her performance does not simply point out the varied archetypes, but also plays with these categories of femininity. She molds the roles into an act of what feminist philosopher Judith Butler calls “gender trouble”, which she defines as “subverting and displacing those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power”.[67] These personas are not based on female behavior, instead female subjects are created trough the daily performance of the archetypes. In this way, Ciao Bella fundamentally questions the organic nature of the characters; as Judith Butler points out, the “‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed”.[68] If we are to accept that these characters are not innate, but are rather constructions, the question arises of by whom, or how, did these constructions arise? In the case of Baartman, we have a detailed history of construction; it is the story of centuries of colonialism, a Western culture eager to consume the exotic, and scientifically backed racism. Like the story of Baartman, these other archetypes do not come from a single force. It would be easy to blame Cuvier alone for his role in objectifying Baartman. Instead, it is beneficial to look at, and to challenge, the framework that produces men like Cuvier, and the contexts of his actions. Judith Butler has commented on this need to deconstruct:

It is important to not only to understand how the terms of gender are instituted, nautralized, and established as presupositional but to trace the moments where the binary system of gender is disputed and challenged, where the coherence of the categories are put into question, and where the very social life of gender turns out to be malleable and transformable.[69]


Rose’s piece is one of those moments where the binary system is disputed and opened for the possibility of transformation. In the conclusion of Rose’s video, all of the women die. The group of women dies by distinctly phallic symbols; Baartman is strangled by a necktie and the Bunny character turns her gun on many of the women. However, Baartman, is later resurrected and shown, in the words of Tracey Murnick, “clicking her heels magically like Dorothy on her way back to Kansas, and having sprouted a pair of extraordinary crystalline wings, flying off into exhilarated limitlessness in a flutter of breathless supremacy”.[70] In this unambiguous biblical allusion, Baartman is the only one to reappear unscathed, even greater than before her death. So why is it that Baartman is the woman given the role of savior above all others?

After Baartman’s resurrection, she appears again, reincarnated as a labia in a jar. This image presents a sudden change, the optimistic image of a winged Baartman replaced with a labia in a jar, quickly brings the viewer to reality. The labia in the jar, is a direct reference to the physical “afterlife” of Baartman. Cuvier’s preservation of Baartman’s labia, skeleton, and brain led her to lay in dormant display within the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, allowing as theorist Bernth Lindfors has commented, “successive generations of Europeans to achieve a more flattering opinion of themselves”.[71] In 1974 public outcry, which brought to light the demeaning and offensive nature of the exhibit, caused museum officials to remove Baartman’s remains from the public eye.[72] In 1994, the then president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, requested that the French government return Baartman’s remains be returned to land of her birth.[73] However, the French government was unwilling to return Baartman’s remains, and did not do so until eight years after the request was made.[74] In January of 2002, Baartman was returned home and six months later she was buried in Cape Town.[75] Baartman’s homecoming occurred less than a year after Ciao Bella premiered in the Plateau of Humankind exhibition at the Venice Biennial. Ultimately, Rose’s use of Baartman’s labia in a jar, as the final sign of Baartman’s presence, is not a final statement, nor an allusion to a comfortable conclusion to Baartman’s story. Feminist epistemology strives to not only critique knowledge construction, but to create new pathways to knowledge; Rose’s piece leads the viewer to question what comes next.



South Africa’s National Women’s Day, August 9th, was chosen as the day the country collectively mourned and honored Baartman’s remains. During Baartman’s burial ceremony, then president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki commented that it would only be possible to say that Sarah Baartman has truly come home when people work together to create a nonracial and gender equality statement. Of course Baartman never knew a world that had racial or gender equality. Her life, in fact, exemplifies the tragic possibilities of inequality and exploitation run wild, unchecked, and unquestioned.

The inequality Baartman faced was due in part, to how the people of her time construed the world around them. The inferiority of the “Hottentots” was a fact, proven by scientists and confirmed by European missionaries and travelers. The inferiority of women was a fact, tried and tested by a civilization built on patriarchy and scientifically proven by Cuvier and generations of his predecessors. This knowledge not only justified but also recommended the treatment of Baartman, creating a context where the actions of Cuvier existed beyond reproach for over a century and a half.

Mbeki’s statement points to the fact that Baartman’s story is not over. While the return of her remains marks a great accomplishment and a step in the right direction, it is by no means a sign that Baartman has achieved a storybook happy ending. A way to achieve a proper “homecoming” for Baartman would entail a deconstruction of the knowledge that allowed her tragic life to progress as it did. This cannot come from a mere refutation of Baartman as the preeminent symbol of otherness or a substation of Baartman for more empowering images. Instead, change must come from a full understanding of the construction of knowledge. The pieces created by Green, Siopis, Fusco, Gomez-Pena and Rose do just that: they treat the story of Baartman as an occasion for societal dissection. Green works within the framework of language; her objectification of Cuvier’s text creates a moment of critique. Within this space of critique it is possible to detect the susceptible nature of Cuvier’s writing. This causes the viewer to see Cuvier not as an objective man of science but rather as a person like any other, filled with arrogance and a desire to prove himself in front of his peers. Green also presents the language of facts as a sight of trauma, alluding to the way that presumed facts are not outside the realm of human emotion, but rather have the capacity to effect and harm. Siopis’ juxtaposition of Baartman and Ida Bauer examines the pathologizing process that occurred with both Baartman and Bauer. The process that turned these women, and women in general, into a symbol of disease, which further enforced the supposed normalcy of white men.

Siopis’ piece also elucidates that the fact formation process had not only disadvantaged Black women, but all women, whether that is the overwhelming carnality that Baartman was seen to possess or the frigidness assigned to Bauer. The work of Gomez-Pena and Fusco highlights the parallels between Baartman’s society and contemporary society. Blind faith in authority existed both then and now and like the individuals of the early 19th century; people today are ready to consume examples of the exotic that promote the view of themselves as the norm. Gomez-Pena and Fusco’s piece also provides an alternative for knowledge creation, one that does not privilege reason over emotion, but recognizes the insights that emotion can provide. Rose’s Ciao Bella inspires a deconstruction of archetypes and supposed norms. It reverses the traditional assumption that an individual is constructed through their actions and instead points to the way in which female subjects are created through their repetition of already existing female roles. Through the actions of resurrection and reincarnation, Ciao Bella grants Baartman the role of a feasible savior and source of change. However, this does not suggest that Baartman’s legacy has already achieved savior status, but instead points to its potential for change. Together these artists use Baartman’s story as a tool to pry open the supposed sacred space of the “fact”. Their pieces constitute an eager deconstruction of knowledge and a movement towards a more equitable approach to understanding. It is only with a new model for knowledge that society will become a more egalitarian one, and it is only then that Sarah Baartman can truly be home.




 Hotentot  Hotentot2


  1. Stephen Jay Gould, “The Hottentot Venus”, The Flamingo’s Smile, (New York: Norton, 1985) 291-305
  2. Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in
  3. Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature”, Critical Inquiry (Autumn, 1985) 202-242
  4. Sadiah Qureshi, “Displaying Sarah Baartman, ‘The Hottentot Venus’”, History of Science, (Vol. 42) 233-
  5. Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sarah Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography,(Princeton University Press, 2008) 8.
  6. William Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man: Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons, (Foote and Brown, 1828) 98.
  7. Crais and Scully, 7.
  8. Ibid.,
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.,
  12. L. Krut, “Steatopygia: The fatty acid composition of subcutaneous adipose tissue in theHottentot” American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1963) 181.
  13. Crais and Scully 5
  14. Ibid.,
  15. Ibid.,
  16. Ibid.,
  17. Bernth Lindfors, “The Afterlife of the Hottentot Venus”, Neohelicon, (Volume 16, 1989) 1.
  18. Ibid., 75.
  19. Ibid., 80.
  20. Ibid., 82.
  21. Ibid., 83.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 98.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., 99.
  28. Ibid., 100.
  29. Ibid., 101.
  30. B. Lindfors, 29
  31. Crais and Scully, 107.
  32. Ibid., 127.
  33. Ibid., 131.
  34. Ibid., 135.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., 138.
  38. Ibid., 139.
  39. Ibid., 140.
  40. Elizabeth Brown, Social Studies: 4+4 Young Americans, (Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1990), 9.
  41. Georges Cuvier “Extraites d’observations faites sur le cadavre d’une femme connue a Paris et a Londres sous le nom de Vénus hottentote,” Memoires du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, vol. 3 (1817), 259-
  42. E. Shepherd, “Art Since 1945” (N 2008)
  43. Green_Charmante.html
  44. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” Women Knowledge
  45. Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (Routledge, Y., 1996) 49.
  46. Crais and Scully,
  47. E. Brown, 9.
  48. Ibid, 26.
  49. Ibid, 26.
  50. E. Shepard
  51. bell hooks, 50.
  52. Sigmund Freud, Dora an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Simon and Schuster 1963)
  53. Freud, 61.
  54. Annie E. Coombes and Penny Siopis, “Gender, ‘Race’, Ethnicity in Art Practice in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Annie E. Coombes and Penny Siopis in Conversation” Feminist Review(Spring, 1997) 13.
  55. Annie E. Coombes and Penny Siopis, 13.
  56. Toril Moi, “Representation of Patriarchy: Sexuality and Epistemology in Freud’s Dora” In Dora’s Case: Freud -Hysteria-Feminism (Columbia University Press, 1985) 198.
  57. Steven Gould, “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples”
  58. Freud, 61.
  59. Freud, 61.
  60. Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Inter-Cultural Performance”, (The MIT Press, 1994)
  61. Coco Fusco, 154-155
  62. Lisa Corrin, “Mining the Museum; Artists Look at Musuems, Museum Look at
  63. Themselves”, Museum Studies An Anthology of Contexts,(Blackwell Publishing, 2004) 381.
  64. Patrica Hill Collins, “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” Women, Knowledge,Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (Routledge, 1996) 230.
  65. Genevieve Lloyd, “The Man of Reason”, Women, Knowledge, Reality: Explorations inFeminist Philosophy (Routledge, 1996) 1
  66. Alison M Jagger “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology”, Women Knowledge, Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (Routledge, 1996)1
  67. Coco Fusco, 162.
  68. Tracey Murnick, “Ciao bella – The sassiest way to say ‘hi’ & ‘bye’ this season”
  69. Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York; Routledge,1999) 34.
  70. Judith Butler, 142.
  71. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York; Routledge, 2004) 2



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