This is the second part in a series on Sara Baartman.
So, Sara Baartman on display, in life and death.
The racialised framing of Baartman’s sexuality and gender is fundamentally tied up with her presence in the show scene. Those who displayed her tried very hard to play up the idea of the wild, dangerously sexual female other. Of course, that they tried so hard just further emphasises that Baartman’s otherness wasn’t so much about her body itself but the shifting meanings assigned to it.
What was emphasised in particular? Her supposedly “disproportionate” buttocks, and the genitals they stood in for in the European imagination. (A very gendered display.) Baartman was exhibited for long days, dressed in tight, skin-coloured clothing and “tribal” accessories, and subject to the touch of paying strangers as though a zoo animal. She was dressed up as an imagined generic figure, hardly the “natural” display of a colonialist vision for which the white public was paying.
This was in the context of a lot of people of various ethnicities and non-normative features being exhibited around western Europe, too. The common framing of her exhibition as singular and primarily gendered, then, ignores the continued substantial ties in white imaginations between blackness and performativity. Which is not to mention the broader entertainment context at the time of freak shows and such. Baartman’s treatment was horrible, and racist, and misogynistic, and not singular; figuring it as representative does away with the specificity of her individual experience. And it also does away with a broader context of varied bigotry.
This decontextualised treatment continued with the Musée de l’Homme’s display of Baartman’s skeleton and cast, forcing her into the postcolonial context as a symbol of the colonial nineteenth century. The cast of her body was bare except for a small piece of cloth between her legs – sexualised again, even in death. And, again, in death as in life, Baartman was displayed as an object, an alienated individual and her sexual parts being made to stand in for European ideas of the unclothed colonised savage. It’s like nothing was learned.
The European show scene as well as the museological world therefore attempted to maintain colonial barriers between the normative observer and the other on display at points of cultural meeting. And the points of meeting were particularly plain at this “primitive” woman’s sexuality. Death wasn’t the end of fascinated observation, or Baartman’s humiliation.