Saartjie Baartman (c.1789 – 29 Dec 1815)
Taken from her homeland of the Gamtoos Valley in South Africa, Saartjie was taken to London and spent four years being exhibited in around Britian. She was exhibited for people to look at and stare, like the sub-human they all thought she was. The recent Human oo attraction at The Barbican would have included an actress displayed like the picture above; a tribute to a woman who, like many others in the 19th century, were degraded in similar fashion. Others like Ota Benga (a pygmy from the Congo) and Abraham Ulrikab (an Inuk from Labrador) were taken from their homeland and displayed to members of the paying public.
She was displayed because of her ‘unusual’ bodily features. Her large buttocks and elongated labia were of great curiositiy to scientists, as well as her jaw structure, the shape of her nose and chin. After her death, her cadaver was dissected and the results published by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville who likened certain features to that of an orangutan. The measuring and comparisons of her face no doubt contributed to Ernst Rüdin’s justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany and have their root in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which was turned into eugenics by his half cousin Sir Francis Galton.
Despite the atrocities of WWII, the civil rights movement and even Womens Suffrage, Saartjie’s genitals, brain and skeleton were on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme up until 1974. A cast of her body was removed in 1976.
Given this sad story, the way she was exhibited and is rumoured to have prostituted herself while living in Paris in poverty, it’s no wonder that certain singers and entertainers have come under criticism for how they portray themselves. Are they just an extention of Saartjie? Or are they merely expressing their sexuality in today’s liberal society?