All because of a pair of African buttocks
Santorri Chamley on the humiliations suffered by Saartjie Baartman, a South African (Khoi) woman, at the hands of European “scientists” – all because of her generously-endowed backside.
“I think Sara Baartman, for me, is sort of symbolic of what happened to Africa as a whole. She was a physical exhibit and proof that they looked at us and decided that we were less than human and therefore they could enslave and do anything they wanted with us,” says Zola Maseko, a film director from South Africa, when we meet for our interview at the National Film Theatre in London.
Saartjie Baartman (Sara for short) is the subject of Maseko’s critically acclaimed documentary, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman. It is a moving chronicle of the young Khoi woman’s short and tragic life.
Born in 1790, in the Eastern Cape, Sara was employed by a Dutch farmer, Pieter Cezar. In 1810, she was abducted by the farmer’s brother, Hendrik, and another man, Alexander Dunlop (a naval doctor), following their visit to the farm.
Sara was taken to London where she was exhibited like a freak at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket because of the “unusual” appearance of her buttocks. The “impresarios” were exploiting the curiosity generated by Europeans visiting the Cape who returned with tales of the “strange protuberance” of the buttocks of the local women.
Sara was made to parade naked on “a stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered”.
She was advertised as “the hottentot venus”. (Hottentot was the derogatory term given by the Dutch to the Khoi people in reference to the “clicks” in their language).
An instant success, Sara became a reluctant icon of black sexuality – unwittingly shaping and defining the lingering racist notion of black female sexuality. She exemplified the lecherous “savage” sexual appetite that European explorers and naturalists associated with black women.
Abolitionists, offended by the indecency of Sara’s public exhibition, took up her cause. The case went to court in November 1810. Sadly, the presiding magistrate ruled against moves to put an end to Sara’s public humiliation.
Her promoters took her to Paris in 1814 and handed her over to a “showman of wild animals” in a travelling circus. She was, from time to time, put on display at high society balls “as a naked and exotic savage dressed only in feathers”. The humiliation intensified – this time in the name of pseudo-science. In 1815, a trio of some of France’s leading scholars – Geffroy St Hillaire, Henri de Blainville and Baron Georges Cuvier (surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte) – set about obtaining (this being the Age of Reason) “scientific” proof that black women were more primitive and sexually ardent than their white counterparts, at the Musee de l’Momme.
Sara’s “unsightly habit” of making her lips protude like an orangutan and displaying brusque, capricious, ape-like movements were amongst the spurious “scientific findings” of the French scientists.
They also noted three things: (a) Sara refused to open her legs and hid her apron (the hypertrophy of the labia which was considered a mark of beauty among the Khoi), (b) the sorrow the examination caused her, and (c) she refused the payment offered her.
Even death failed to bring an end to Sara’s humiliation. When she died in December 1815, shortly after the “scientific” examination, aged 25, racism disguised as “science” won the day. She was dissected, her brain and genitalia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and a plastercast was taken of her body by Cuvier who also removed her skeleton. They became prized exhibits at the Musee de l’Homme where they were put on public display until as late as 1985.
“As a filmmaker, I really thought what a wonderful story of courage,” says Maseko. “I think it’s a tragic story. I think this young woman battled and fought for her dignity. She was alone in a strange continent and she died all alone and far away from people who loved her. And all along I have just seen evidence of her battle for dignity which I think she did maintain.”
Like Sara, Maseko has firsthand experience of displacement. The 32-year-old, Johannesburgbased filmmaker, was born and bred in exile in neighbouring Swaziland. His parents fled their native South Africa in the 1960s because of political reasons.
Maseko was educated at Waterford Kamhlaba College in Swaziland. He also attended the African National Congress (ANC) Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania. After graduating, he spent two years with the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
In 1990, Maseko left Umkhonto and came to England to study filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, specialising in documentary directing. He returned to South Africa in 1994 after graduating. He now has several films under his belt, including The Foreigner (1994), his first fiction film which deals with xenophobia in South Africa. It has since won several international awards. Maseko now has his own production company, Dola Bill Productions.
The life and times of Sara Baartman was inspired by a TV programme which Maseko saw on Channel 4 in Britain which explored the portrayal of black people in Western popular culture in which Sara was mentioned.
With so little written about her, and even less to reveal what she really looked like beyond grossly exaggerated caricatures and cartoons, researching and piecing together Sara’s story was not an easy task.
Harnessing the finance was another uphill struggle. The film was a rare co-production between the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) and France. Although France has a long-standing tradition of financing films by French-speaking African producers, there has been very little activity with Anglophone countries like South Africa.
The obstacle course continued when Maseko initially attempted to gain access to Sara’s body remains. The Musee de I’Homme denied him access. It was only through the intervention of the South African government that he was finally able to gain access to the plastercast of her body. But he was still refused the right to film in Paris.
“I began to wonder, was she deformed?”, says Maseko. “You know, Africans – especially South African women -have quite big bottoms. When I actually saw her plastercast, it was of a normal woman and she wasn’t deformed. There was nothing at all wrong with her.”
Maseko’s film (since screened several times by SABC), has brought critical acclaim and several awards. He was voted best newcomer at Sithengi, the South African Film and TV Market where the film also won the best documentary award. It also won awards at the Milano African Film Festival and FESPACO, the African premier film festival held annually in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Unusually, despite Sara’s obvious British alsociation, broadcasters in the UK have yet to show interest in screening the documentary.
This important film not only shines the spotlight on the topical issue of the repatriation of body remains and artefacts forcibly removed by the European explorers and colonialists, but also the strident pseudo-scientific mythology of race which became the vital ingredient in British imperial theory.
When the South African government, acting on behalf of a group representing Khoi indigenous rights, initially approached the French government for the repatriation of Sara’s remains, the French told the South Africans to clean up their own backyard. They cited how one of the South African representatives (a white professor who appears in Maseko’s film) personally dug up the remains of Khosa chiefs and conducted experiments on them.
Not surprisingly, Maseko was refused permission to film at South Africa’s University of Witwatersand’s Anthropology Department (which was a collection of gorily preserved body parts amassed in the name of dubious scientific experiments) because of the Tissue Act, which forbids the filming of the remains of dead people.
Maseko says about what he saw at the University of Witwatersrand: “All the people [preserved] in those glass cages are black. There was not one white specimen on show. I really don’t know what those scientists did in that field of science. There was half a head of a black man cut open in formaldehyde, and it’s scary! You wonder, was he a hobo, did he donate his body to science? I don’t think so.”
Maseko is part of a growing band of black filmmakers who are benefiting from the increasing interest in documentaries in South Africa. They are attempting to put the record straight by tackling subjects and issues that have previously been swept under the carpet.
“Black filmmakers in South Africa haven’t had the means to make the films we wanted to make in the past. Now that we do, we’re going to rewrite the history books,” Maseko promises. “We’re going to be telling it from our perspectives. We’re going to say this is who we are, and this is where we come from. We’re not apes. We don’t have deformed genitals. It’s about regaining our dignity, and for those reasons and more I was motivated to tell Sara’s story.”
Sadly, although the story is now in the open, it appears that efforts to return Sara’s remains may be thwarted. Extraordinarily, the Musee I’Homme now claims that it is no longer in possession of her brain and genitals. Moreover, with only one precedent in France of the repatriation of artefacts demanded (France returned 11 th century scrolls to Thailand), it still remains to be seen if Sara will finally be allowed to rest in peace.
In the meantime, Maseko is busy developing a range of projects. These include a fictionalised series about the trials and tribulations of three former South African exiles. He is also working (in association with the SABC) on a series about Sophiatown, the legendary South African township of the 1950s.
However, as South Africa and other developing countries continue to buy cheap Hollywood programmes instead of investing more money in home-made ones, local filmmakers have to struggle to raise finance. As usual, they are being compelled to go abroad in search of money. Maseko is hoping that his appeal to the burgeoning black business sector in South Africa for finance, will pay off.
“We’re saying listen guys, this is our cultural heritage, we owe it to our children, you owe it to yourselves. You are the guys of the 1950s who were destroyed [by apartheid]. It’s our duty to celebrate that. We’re talking about African Renaissance now. Before we know where we’re going, we must know who we are and where we’re coming from. And Sophiatown is reviving the best of what we are,” Maseko says.
Copyright International Communications Sep 2000
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