Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman

Article excerpt

This essay reviews theoretical analyses of Sarah Baartman, a key figure in scholarly studies of biological determinism and gender difference. Positioning the insights of Sylvia Wynter alongside the sculpture Sarah Baartman by Willie Bester, a creative and politicized engagement with scientific knowledge is explored.

The natural sciences are, in spite of all their dazzling triumphs with respect to knowledge of the natural world, half-starved.

--Sylvia Wynter, "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom"

After a decade-long campaign to return her to her homeland, in 2002 the remains of Sarah Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman, and Saartjie Baartman, were gathered up and transported from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, to Hankey, South Africa, for burial. Baartman's dismembered and dissected body had been in Paris since her death in 1815. For about five years prior to her death, Sarah Baartman, identified by her captors as a racially inferior sexual object, was taken to Europe and put on display at private and public events. Her body was examined and prodded for its racial and sexual alterity. Described by some contemporary scholars as "the icon for sexual difference between the European and the Black" (Gilman 231), Bartmaan in both her life and afterlife has represented a captivating exemplar of scientific spectacle.

In this essay I explore the creatively scientific possibilities with which Sarah Baartman has posthumously provided us. I address how we might, and can, reimagine the political work science can do in relation to Baartman precisely because, in her life and afterlife, it has been biological determinism and scientific racism--evolutionary reports, missing-link tales, nature-savage narratives, and African/European racial-sexual bifurcations--that have descriptively coded her. My argument is therefore not concerned with authenticating Sarah Baartman, but rather with the ways in which we might differently integrate science and creative labour into our reading practices. Indeed, from her dancing as a human curiosity at Picadilly in London to the casts made of her dismembered body, Baartman is produced as unquestionably less than human vis-a-vis colonial-scientific knowledges and, more recently, through some theoretical analyses that explore the ways in which race, racism, and science depicted and defined her body, her life work, and her history. Rather than following an analytic pathway that understands Baartman as already scientifically condemned, in this discussion I work with a theoretical framework provided by Sylvia Wynter in order to approach the question of scientific racism differently. Instead of re-centring racist biological discourses in relation to critique, I consider how creative works might intervene in, and nourish, our understandings of science. I am specifically drawing on Wynter's elaboration of Aime Cesaire's "the science of the word" (Wynter, "Unsettling"; cf. Cesaire), where she critiques the bifurcation of scientific and creative knowledge and encourages us to consider the ways in which these two world views might contemporaneously shift our understanding of humanness--and thus, for purposes of this paper, the extraordinary phenomenon/circus freak/sexual deviant that was, and is, Sarah Baartman.

I begin with a familiar, albeit brief, discussion of the gendered and racial underpinnings of science and the seeable body in order to review how biological narratives underpin questions of social construction. This section of the discussion notices how Eurocentric conceptions of science underpin the social construction of black femininity. I follow with the suggestion that because figures such as Baartman were historically tied to narratives of naturalism and primitivism--and viewed as naturally inferior--our contemporary understandings of race, sex, and gender continue to posit this as the foremost way to conceptualize black women. …

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