Tag Archives: Exoticism

Book Review: Human Zoos

A new review by postgraduate research student Emily Trafford of the University of Liverpool’s School of Histories, Languages and Cultures has been added to the research section of the Black Atlantic Resource, which looks at the 2008 publication Human Zoos.

P. Blanchard, N. Bancel, G. Boёtsch, É. Deroo, S. Lemaire, C. Forsdick (eds), Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires, 2008 (Liverpool University Press: Liverpool)

This recent collection of essays on the display of human otherness moves beyond the wave of freak show literature of the 1980s and ‘90s, and seeks to provide a more comprehensive overview of this peculiar exhibitionary practice. The display of the exotic Other for entertainment, education, and supposedly the advancement of scientific knowledge, occurred in numerous guises throughout imperial nations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The strength of the volume lies in its scope – in terms of time and place, the historical characters and stories that emerge, and the disciplinary approaches that its contributors utilise – all of which make Human Zoos a valuable resource …read more

If you are interested in contributing a book review to the Black Atlantic Resource please contact us.


Video of the Week: After Hot-En-Tot: Two conversations with Artist Renée Cox

Following on from the popularity of an earlier post – If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and then you get kicked to the curb – focusing on the work of Renée Cox this week’s video feature includes two clips, each containing an interview with artist Renée Cox recorded at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art on 22 October 2009. The first is a conversation with an audience led by former Spelman Cosby chair Lisa E. Farrington, Ph.D., John Jay College, CUNY. The second is a one-on-one conversation that appears to have been filmed on the same day inside the Museum’s gallery space.

Each clip presents Cox ruminating on themes and driving forces behind her work including Race, Gender, Womanhood, Representation and Femininity. There are some overlaps in the conversation of each clip but also some interesting divergences.

The first conversation is pinned around specific works of Cox’s. It takes as its starting point the motivation for Cox’s work Hot-en-tot (1994) based on research she conducted which led her to find out about the “extraordinarily shocking histories” of human exhibition. Cox’s photographic work Hot-en-tot is inspired by the life and experiences of a Khosian woman, Saartje Baartman, who was objectified as a physiognomic curiosity and exhibited in Europe in the 19th century, as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. In Cox’s nude self-portrait her breasts and buttocks are covered with oversized prosthetic versions found for sale in a fancy dress shop. Cox discusses the power of the objectifying gaze and the importance for her in this, and other works, of revising history and creating a space to defy and return that gaze. Through revisiting Baartman’s body and the exploitative narrative that surrounded it – which became a potent symbol projected outwards onto the black female body as an abstract idea – Cox recreates, revises, and represents: A process that she employs through(out) her body (of work).

The second clip offers a more intimate and provocative discussion with Cox. She talks about the resonance of her work Queen Nanny of the Maroons (2004) which appeared in the exhibition Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic at Tate Liverpool in 2010.  Generally though, this conversation explores more broadly the social issues that “inspire and impact” her work as a whole. Here Cox discusses specific issues surrounding: education and intergration in the contemporary context of the United States and; the comparative importance of race and skin tone as identity in Jamaica and the United States. Cox encapsulates her bold and assured approach to creating as she winds up the interview stating: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and then you get kicked to the curb.”

To read more about Cox’s work click here.

To view Renée Cox’s website click here

Click here to view some images of Cox’s work online via tumblr.

MoCADA and the 2011 College Art Association Conference

The Black Atlantic Resource is delighted to announce a collaborative programme of posting over the next five weeks during which we will be making available information about some of the activities and discourses which the New York based Musuem of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) has been involved in recently.

So here is the first:

MoCADA’s Curatorial Fellows reflect on The 2011 College Art Association Conference

On Friday, February 11th, we had our first experience in the field as Curatorial Fellows at MoCADA. We attended the 99th annual College Art Association (CAA) Conference at the Hilton New York in Midtown, Manhattan. The atmosphere was lively, with artists and scholars bustling from lecture to lecture, introducing each other to colleagues, and browsing the legendary Book and Trade Fair.

The day began at 12:30pm with thirteen poster displays by scholars in the field, including MoCADA’s former Director of Exhibitions, Kimberli Gant. Kim’s poster presentation was on Staff Diversity in Museums, and drew from current research that she is conducting at the University of Texas at Austin in pursuit of her Ph.D in Contemporary African Diasporan arts. Kim’s display visually represented race and gender demographics in museum workplaces in …read more

At 2:30pm, we attended a collection of presentations, followed by a panel discussion entitled, “The Ethnographic Ruse: Early Erotic Photographs of Non-Western Women.” Five scholars presented papers on their research, and common themes of colonialism, exotification of the female body, and photographs as documentation versus fantasy, emerged throughout the afternoon.

One of the papers, Shadow Catchers: Legacies of Early Photographic Images of Samoans, written and presented by Dr. Caroline Vercoe of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, bridged historic representations of Samoan women as hypersexualized, with a discussion on the practices of contemporary Samoan women photographers, designers, and performance artists. Dr. Vercoe referenced multimedia and performance artist, Shigeyuki Kihara …read more

The session concluded with a panel discussion moderated by legendary performance artist, Coco Fusco, from Parsons The New School for Design. During the question and answer portion of the discussion, the point was made that while in the Pacific, there is a history of the nude female body being constructed as sexually inviting and welcoming, the Black female nude has historically been associated with the slave auction block … read more

A question to ponder:

To what extent are there parallels between contemporary works by women of African Descent and other women of color who construct images of the nude, racialized body?

Please comment or add questions on this discussion!

Contributed by: Zemen Kidane, Isissa Komada-John, Jabari Owens-Bailey

To read this post in full and view related video and audio clips click here.

Primitivist Picasso

New! Pablo Picasso profile at the Black Atlantic Resource: This profile discusses in what ways Picasso first experienced African art, why he was so drawn to it and traces its influence in his work. Whilst it is impossible to definitively gauge the extent of the impact Picasso’s use of African art had on the world, as one of the most influential and prolific artists of the time it is doubtless a vital aspect of the history of the Black Atlantic.

Pablo Picasso famously stated ‘art is the elimination of the unnecessary’ and this somewhat explains why he became drawn to African artifact. The influence of African art on Picasso and his work is rarely discussed in much depth and indeed in his lifetime, Picasso tried to downplay its significance.

He first encountered forms of African art around the turn of the twentieth century when ‘exotic’ items were imported by sailors from French occupied Africa and displayed in European museums. From here on evidence of the appropriation of elements of African art can be found in Picasso’s work, and often with a patronising primitivist view typical of the mind set of this European avant-garde generation.

Gaugain is credited as being the first artist to develop the idea of primitivism in art. Indeed the current exhibition at Tate Modern is titled Gauguin: Maker of Myth, reinforcing the idealism of his view of ‘the Other’. Picasso took the use of the primitive a step further than Gauguin; where Gauguin was inspired to depict ‘exotic’ lands and the ‘noble savage’, Picasso was inspired to incorporate the very spirit of ‘exotic’ artifacts into his work, regardless of subject. This is how a painting of Spanish prostitutes became the turning point in modern art. Les Demoiselles d’Avingnon is the work that marks the transition from Picasso’s realistic paintings into the revolution that was Cubism …read more.

From Biography to Ghost Story: The Search for Sara Baartman

When historians Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully began research for Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, they intended to uncover details about Baartman in the years before she became known as the Hottentot Venus. Aware that most scholarship has focused on her pre- and post-mortem display as a scientific oddity, exotic curiosity, and freak of nature, the authors wondered: “What if we looked at the totality of her life and resisted the temptation of reading her history backward as a story of inevitable victimization?” (p. 4) This question led them to five countries on three continents where they conducted research in more than a dozen archives and libraries and interviewed possible relatives of Baartman. Unfortunately, they discovered only fragmentary scraps of enticing information that offered little real insight into their elusive subject.

Crais and Scully’s frustration over this lack of evidence is palpable throughout the text. They note, for example, that Baartman gave only three interviews; of those, two are probably fiction. The third, which took place in London, was conducted in Dutch (Baartman’s second language) under the scrutiny of court officers “and then translated and handed down to history as a paraphrase” (p. 5). The authors also outline some of the more disheartening logistical aspects of their research experience: a Parisian archivist denied them access to a centuries-old document for fear of causing a “diplomatic incident,” according to an archivist quoted by the authors (p.183), and dealing with the South African government proved challenging. (One important document was said to have disappeared.) At the beginning of the book, the authors openly admit the defeat of their original goal: “We will always know more about the phantom that haunts the Western imagination [the Hottentot Venus] … than we do about the life of Sara Baartman” (p. 6).

Nevertheless, Crais and Scully breathe life into Baartman as thoroughly as they can, frequently situating her story within historical events and physical geography to compensate for the gaping absences in the archival record. Throughout the book, they correct a few misconceptions and provide some thoughtful analysis. For example, they emphasize that Baartman was born in South Africa in the 1770s and not in 1789 as is generally thought. Her earlier birth is significant because it means she witnessed the shift from an African to a colonial way of life. By the time Baartman crossed the sea to London in 1810, she had lived and worked in Cape Town and its environs for more than a decade. When her feet touched European soil, she was “a worldly woman in her thirties, not an innocent child recently brought from Africa’s interior” (p. 57).

Even so, Baartman never was a free woman, and males hoping to profit from her otherness largely dictated her life. One of her owners, Hendrik Cesars (a Free Black), first displayed her in 1808 to medical patients in Cape Town to pay off his debts. About this situation, Crais and Scully note: “In all likelihood Sara became something of an early nineteenth-century exotic dancer and may have provided sex as well” (p. 51). Later, during Baartman’s time in London, the authors “can well imagine that the relationship between Cesars and Sara moved, if it had not been so previously, to one of sexual intimacy” (p. 81). While this type of conjecture, which appears throughout the text, adds detail to the authors’ historical analysis, it opposes their stated intention for this project. Since Crais and Scully chose to exclude such educated guesswork from the footnotes (perhaps in an effort to lengthen a relatively short book), parts of the text reinforce Baartman’s status as a victim, a blank signifier (or “ghost,” as the title states) who, throughout history, has been molded to fit others’ agendas.

Baartman herself may have attempted to fulfill others’ expectations, and Crais and Scully argue that an astute comprehension of European desires coupled with an impressive acting talent made her a convincing performer. She also may have altered her life story–leaving out certain details and embellishing others–to suit various interviewers. Ironically, assuming that Baartman was a savvy strategist in terms of her image, the same tactics that benefited her while alive probably contributed to the erasure of her true self from history.

Although the authors make repeated efforts to grant their subject agency, the enticing tidbits of information that suggest Baartman may have exercised her own will seem forced. The authors interpret Baartman’s refusal to allow Georges Cuvier to examine her genitals, even while artists rendered and scientists measured the rest of her body, as “a profound statement of self” (p. 135). But, only five pages later, the dramatic way in which they describe the fate of Baartman’s body after her 1815 death seems to undermine her act of defiance: “Now she could no longer resist their entreaties. Spreading her legs open, the men examined Sara’s genitals, to their delight discovering her ‘apron.’ Science as rape, institutionalized” (p. 140).

Another way in which Crais and Scully emphasize Baartman’s agency is by stressing that she was a multilingual businesswoman who, at least to some degree, controlled her image as the Hottentot Venus. In a move unusual for the time, Baartman held the copyright and was the official publisher of two famous Frederick Christian Lewis aquatints (dated September 1810 and March 1811) that represent her in indigenous dress; both were converted into broadsheet advertisements for her performances. Since Baartman was the only person in London who had knowledge of Khoekhoe clothing, body paint, and accoutrements, the authors “think that Baartman sought to render her depictions with verisimilitude, even if the overall design of the poster was out of her control” (p. 75). Further revealing the absence of her power (after suggesting its presence), however, they deem it unlikely that Baartman saw royalties from her own image. They also argue that Alexander Dunlop, Baartman’s owner at that time and the originator of the Hottentot Venus idea, may have made her the publisher in an attempt to allay Londoners’ fears that she was being exploited. Supporting this theory, Crais and Scully emphasize that the second aquatint, which appeared in the wake of the London court case that questioned Baartman’s liberty, presents a more conservative rendering of its subject than the first.

Confusing to the reader, however, is that Dunlop “got rid [reviewer’s emphasis] of the tight body stocking that suggested a nude Hottentot Venus” in October 1810 to make Baartman’s performance more conservative (p. 91). This apparently was an attempt to forestall additional criticism about Baartman’s possible slave status. However, according to Crais and Scully, the second, less conservative aquatint presented Baartman in a body stocking: “Lewis produced a second aquatint in March 1811, depicting Sara closer to how she was then being exhibited” (p. 75). The authors state that the depiction is not an exact replication of Baartman’s costume and note that the second image is less revealing since it presents her from the side rather than the front. Nevertheless, the contradiction in the body stocking discussion needs acknowledgement and explication.

Another point of confusion is Crais and Scully’s conflation of the Khoekhoe and the Gonaqua peoples. While they state in a footnote that “[r]econstructing Khoekhoe culture and society is notoriously vexing” (p. 186), in the text they merely note that the mostly pastoral Khoekhoe lived among the Gonaqua. They then repeatedly speak of these two peoples as one, as in the following passage: “Strokes somewhat bolder than one would usually have found among the early Gonaqua of the Eastern lands paint her [Baartman’s] face. She holds a staff, smokes a pipe, and wears shoes–the latter clearly not part of original Khoekhoe dress” (p. 75). Is the reader supposed to gather that the two peoples’ material cultures are interchangeable? This lack of clarity weakens research findings the authors present as straightforward fact. For example, Crais and Scully note: “There is always a tension within European reportage. Seventeenth-century observers typically portrayed Khoekhoe as a dirty, even vile people. In the more romantic imagination in the second half of the eighteenth century, Gonaqua often earned the reputation for being kind and generous, and their women fair and beautiful” (p. 15). Are the Khoekhoe and Gonaqua here being discussed as two distinct peoples?

Two particularly strong aspects of the book are the authors’ contrast of the cultural climates in London and Paris and their discussion of Baartman’s significance to South African nation-building in the 1990s. The London public and the city’s legal system were critical of Baartman’s display and concerned about her status as a possible slave. (In 1810, The Case of the Hottentot Venus was brought before the King’s Bench; the ruling declared Baartman free.) By the time Baartman performed in Paris, however, her reputation as the Hottentot Venus preceded her; she had a predetermined role to fill. Moreover, Parisians were seeking entertainment during a particularly stressful time in French history. Public outcry was nonexistent when S. Reaux, who purchased Baartman from Taylor in 1815, and displayed her for ten hours a day at the Palais-Royal, placed a collar around her neck: “Here the pubic mark of slavery, the collar, elicited no complaints” (p. 128). Even when Parisian journalists were sympathetic to Baartman’s plight, “[t]he public understood Sara Baartman in the context of a wider cultural enthusiasm of the exotic” (p. 130).

In South Africa, Baartman’s post-mortem treatment also was less than desirable as various groups attempted to “claim” her and take possession of her remains, which were repatriated from the Museé de l’Homme in August 2002. After much controversy and outcry, she was buried in the outskirts of Hankey (near Port Elizabeth) simply because one primary source suggested she was born in that area. Although Baartman had become a symbol for South Africa and for women everywhere, her gravesite fell into disrepair within months and was even vandalized. Metal bars now surround her grave: “Returned to South Africa, Sara Baartman remains behind bars, imprisoned still” (p. 168).

Throughout Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, Crais and Scully stress the difficulties of attempting to draw conclusions from piecemeal secondary sources. They also examine the power dynamics that problematize seemingly straightforward facts. Unfortunately, large gaps in the archival record thwarted their attempts to write a straightforward biography (thus the wise placement of “A Ghost Story” before “a Biography” in the subtitle). As a result, they use a fair amount speculation to construct a plausible portrait of Baartman–they bestow her with hopes, desires, and fears. This approach, which is more creative writing exercise than factual analysis, is flawed as scholarship. Since the authors criticize others who have spoken for Baartman throughout history, it is also contradictory. Nevertheless, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus may be a necessary addition to scholarship about Baartman. The product of an exhaustive research mission, it indicates that the search for  details about Baartman’s life can now end, for “her story … also is a cautionary tale about silence and the limits of history, and about what happens when someone, or something, comes to stand for too much, when the past can bear no more” (p. 6).

Citation: Joyce M. Youmans. Review of Crais, Clifton C.; Scully, Pamela, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews. September, 2010.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29642

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.