Academic journal article African American Review

The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'Venus.' (Khoi-San Native of South Africa Publicly Displayed as the Hottentot Venus in 1810 in London and Paris; Playwright)

Academic journal article African American Review

The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'Venus.' (Khoi-San Native of South Africa Publicly Displayed as the Hottentot Venus in 1810 in London and Paris; Playwright)

Article excerpt

In 1810, amid public sensation, scandal, and debate, Saartjie (pronounced, in Afrikaans, Sar-key) Baartman, a member of the Khoi-San (Khoikhoi and San) peoples of South Africa, was put on near-nude public display in London and Paris. Ironically and perversely dubbed "The Hottentot Venus," she became the main attraction and a thriving business for the London showmen who exhibited her. Baartman's genitalia and the "abnormal" protuberance of her buttocks, or what was termed steatopygia, served as the central model for Black female "otherness" in the nineteenth century. To this day, Baartman's preserved buttocks and genitalia are in a jar at the Musee de l'homme in Paris.(1)

Based on the nineteenth-century exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, the Obie Award-winning stage production Venus, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Richard Foreman, opened at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in May of 1996 to mixed reviews. Critics simultaneously described the work as "a protracted exercise in the obvious,"(2) a "formidable experience: a gnarly but brilliant meditation,"(3) and a production that, though it played to "small audiences, many of whom decamped before the final curtain," was nevertheless "remarkable."(4) Suzan-Lori Parks's authorship includes such noted works as The American Play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and the screenplay for the film Girl 6, produced and directed by Spike Lee. Darius Casey's description of Parks's work as a "non-naturalistic meditation on history, identity and culture," a deconstruction of "both the mythic experience of Black America and the history of America" fits Venus well. But while presenting a "non-naturalistic meditation on history," Parks's historical deconstruction presents a fictitious melodrama that frames Saartjie Baartman as a person complicit in her own horrific exploitation; Parks depicts her as a sovereign, consenting individual with the freedom and agency to trade in her human dignity for the promise of material gain.

This essay focuses on Parks's representation of Saartjie Baartman as an accomplice in her own exploitation, presenting a contextualized reading of Parks's play based on the historical documentation. My historicized reading furthers the discourse that considers the issues of power, choice, and agency. I will argue that a close examination of the circumstances connected with Baartman's removal from the Cape and subsequent exhibition raises serious questions regarding what Parks has described as Baartman's complicity in her own exploitation. Further, Parks's portrayal of Saartjie Baartman draws on cultural images and stereotypes commonly used to represent Black woman in demeaning and sexually debased roles, the objectified oppositional "Other" measured against a white male "norm."(5) I will argue that Baartman was a victim, not an accomplice, not a mutual participant in this demeaning objectification, and Parks's stage representation of her complicity diminishes the tragedy of her life as a nineteenth-century Black woman striped of her humanity at the hands of a hostile, racist society that held her and those like her in contempt. In other words, Parks's Venus reifies the perverse imperialist mind set, and her mythic historical reconstruction subverts the voice of Saartjie Baartman.

In an interview, Parks explains her decision to construct Baartman as an accomplice and how this perspective relates to her own experiences:

I could have written a two-hour saga

with Venus being the victim. But she's

multi-faceted. She's vain, beautiful,

intelligent and, yes, complicit. I write

about the world of my experience, and

it's more complicated than "that white

man down the street is giving me a hard

time." That's just one aspect of our

reality. As Black people, we're

encouraged to be narrow and simply

address the race issue. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.