The True Story of Hottentot Venus.
If Africa has anything to teach, it is the lessons about the essence of living: this collection is a tribute to such lessons learnt growing up amid the sensual textures and colours that shaped my life there. Of these, those which have taken deepest root can be traced back to the impact of colonialism and the congruent human capacity for cruelty and dehumanisation. The rarity of tolerance and compassion is embedded for me in the story of Africa's oldest indigenous tribe. The Khoikhoi, KhoiSan, the San, the Basawra, the Bushman, are names given to a group of hunter-gatherers whose gentle manner and ancient ways of life have been all but eradicated. Two hundred years illustrates just how little democracy and the notion of human rights has changed what is still an essentially racist sense of superiority. The story of Hottentot Venus tells their story too.
It begins with the birth if a San girl in 1789. As a young woman she is sold to a Cape Ducthc farmer Hendrik Cezar. While in his employ the young girl captivates the attention of a young British ship's doctor Dr William Dunlop and she is sold to him. Convinced by him that fortune lay in her exhibiting her extraordinary features across Europe, she left the Cape of Good Hope with him and arrived in London in 1810.
Steattopygia describes a physical condition by which the female buttocks and genitals are considerably enlarged. It was the kind of black sexual erotica that attracted huge public attention. All of twenty years of age, this young woman found herself on public display. She created a sensation. People flocked to see her weird nakedness and many caricatures of her were published in journals of the day.
In 1814, she was sol to a french circus owner. In Paris she became the toast of the aristocracy who would have her on private display at society balls and soon academia, keen to substantiate pre-Darwinist theories of race, took ''scientific'' interest in her. Even Napoleon's Surgeon-General, Georges Cuvier summoned her for inspection. He proclaimed her as exemplary of eternal inferiority. Her humiliation was complete after her death in 1816, at the age of just 26, when Cuvier dissected her corpse, removed her genitals and her brain and presented them to a gathering of men of science at the French Academy, proclaiming:
" I have the honour to present to the Academy, the genital organs of this, my Hottentot Venus."
A plaster cast of her physique was displayed at the Museé de l'Homme in Paris from then on until 1981. Her skeletal remains were eventually returned to South Africa in January 2002, after years of negotiations by Melson Mandela for her proper burial. At the service ex president Mbeki said that her story... " is the loss of our ancient freedom... it is the story of our reduction to the status of objects that could be owned, used and disposed of by others...."
The irony of this lies in the very treatment of the remaining Khoi tribe under post apartheid legislation which has marginalised them more than everand they are regarded as bordering on extinction.
As if to save them from a dimmer fate, three south African businessmen opened a resort on what is histroically speaking khoi land, Kagga Kamma. This is today, a luxury resort for foreign tourists who wish to experience the 'original San lifestyle'. In the early '90's the San tribe was invited to work at Kagga Kamma. the invitation was accepted in the belief that this was an opportunity of reclaiming an identity and a way of life which had been legislatively denied them for so long by the nationalist apartheid government. In reality they became and remain modern day 'slaves': they are the 'centrepiece experience' of a visit to this resort... more aptly described as a bushman theme park. They are expected to appear before tourists each day in traditional dress (which means essentially naked save for leather thongs covering genitalia , and re-enact hunting dancing and other lifestyle rituals.
I saw this on film and watched horrified as young and old San women were humiliatingly asked to pose with German tourists while having to allow them to touch and fondle them physically. Tips for such acquiescences were made to the women in packets of crisps and cans of coke....
In the two hundred years since the tragic fate of the young girl known to the world as Hottentot Venus, nothing of her story had taught us about dignity. She did and does have a name....Sara Baartman.
Her story symbolises the worst in man and today, this cycle continues. The Hottentot Venus Project is about continuing the message of her story and redressing it and in doing so to honour an ancient gentle tribe who refuse to go silently into that good night...
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