Have you heard of Saartjie Baartman? Maybe you know her as the “Hottentot Venus,” the name under which she was exhibited in Britain in the 19th century. Saartjie, a Khoisan woman from what is now South Africa, left for London in 1810 under the belief that she would earn money as a dancer. Instead, Saartjie found herself forced to participate in a London exhibition (“human zoos,” the products of colonialism, were common at the time). The European audience thought that Saartjie’s body was unusual and “overly sexualized”; she was displayed naked, the better to show her buttocks and labia. After her death in 1815 (aged only 26 years old), Saartjie’s genitals, brain, and skeleton were preserved by Georges Cuvier and placed in Paris’s Musee de l’Homme until 1974. Finally, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that France return her remains, and in 2002, she was returned to South Africa.
The following links present fascinating perspectives on Saartjie’s story, as well as on the wider implications at play.
Colonized and Consumed
Who is Sara Baartman? Every black woman should know her name
Letter from President Thabo Mbeki
Diary of an Anxious Black Woman: Saartjie Baartman
Exhibiting "Others" in the West