Black Venus was the artist’s name of Sarah Baartman, a woman from Khoikhoi descent, from Cape Town in South Africa. She came to England to perform, and later died in France. This may sound rather innocuous, but her story is riddled by racism, imperialism and sexism. Almost every word in the first two sentences of this blog has an abject side to it. The language of her community is known by its click sounds, which had such an astonishing effect on the ears of the colonizing planters that they renamed them as ‘Hottentot’. Nowadays they are either called Bushmen, or again Khoikhoi or Khoisan.
As far as we know Sarah came of her own will, accompanied by her boss. Yet nowadays we would say she was trafficked, for instead of singing, dancing or playing a fiddle, she was employed as a circus act, in which she had to play the savage, sexually depraved primitive black woman. She ended up in prostitution. Black Venus then, or Hottentot Venus as she was also called, was the name given to her by her master who exploited the desire, anxiety, repulsion and primal fear for 'savages' which were rampant in early nineteenth century Europe. Initially it was her wide behind that attracted most attention. She had to perform in a cage, growling while her boss seemed to control her, staging the victory of European civilization over the savagery and proximity to apes that black people were associated with.
While this brutal and sexualized racism was unbearable, her condition worsened when she moved to Paris. There scientists got hold of her, and wanted to find proof of the bestiality of black people by trying to investigate her socalled 'Hottentot apron', elongated labia (minor labia). She refused to subdue to this ultimate humiliation. She ended up in a brothel and died of drink and syphilis. Then the doctors finally bought her body, and excised her genitalia and brains, preserving them and showing them to their students, as 'proof' of the savagery and lack of civilisation of the Hottentots.
She was famous all over, many sensational articles were written about her and she was exposed to the most vulgar kind of public. In Paris even her labia became public property. After her death she, that is her labia and buttocks, appeared in many books demonstrating the so called superiority of the white race.
This is one of the best known cases of the construction of racism and the complicity of scientists. Just as women’s subordination was seen to be innate, the ‘proof’ of the inferiority of the black race was located in their bodies, and particularly in the genitalia of Sarah Baartman. Recently her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002 and she received a dignified burial.
When the film about her life was released I immediately went to see it. The director managed to show the humiliations of Sarah Baartman in graphic detail. So much so that the friend who accompanied me left after half an hour, when the film wasn’t even halfway; she couldn’t stand the pain and humiliation of the protagonist. Although the film gives a good picture of the blatant racism of the time, I left unsatisfied. The racism had been carefully shown, but the issue of the Hottentot apron had been left aside, giving the impression that it was a particular feature of the Khoikhoi or even of Sarah herself.
The custom of the elongation of the labia is widespread in Africa. It is a very controversial issue, dating back to the time of the first white missionaries and administrators. Not only Khoikhoi women take pride in their elongated labia minor, women in various communities in Congo, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, and as far north as Uganda and Ruanda are only considered fit to be married after they have elongated their labia minora. Pulling the labia is part of the initiation rites of girls. Older women may perform the activity, but often girls of the same age group pull each others’ inner lips. Due to the disdain of the missionaries and other authorities the custom has gone underground and many questions are left unanswered. It is clear that in contrast to female genital mutilation (FGM), where a smaller or larger part of the clitoris and labia are excised or cut, the elongation of labia is intended to increase sexual pleasure. The pleasure of whom is not always clear. Interviewed men agreed that they like it, but it is variously reported that women enjoy it too. An African woman anthropologist told me that the girls enjoy the practice and may continue the game even when the desired length has been reached. Other African anthropologists maintain that it is a painful procedure carried out only to please men.
When I was drafting the African Gender and Development Index, the majority of the politicians and policy makers agreed that it should be classified under the category of 'harmful traditional practices', just as FGM. The World Health Organization is also struggling with it. At present the consensus seems to be that the only 'harm' associated with the practice lies in the application of certain herbs or other substances during the process. But what about the pleasure?
The film could have taken a position in this debate by showing how Sarah and her Khoikhoi girl friends played with each other. Now without such a context the picture remains that the 'Black Venus' was an enigmatic sex symbol.
See for more literature:
Koster, Marian and Lisa Leimar Price, 2008, Rwandan female genital modification: Elongation of the Labia minora and the use of botanical species. In: Culture, Health and Society, 10(2): 191-204.
Perez, Guillermo Martinez and Harriet Namulondo, 2011, Elongation of Labia minora in Uganda: including Baganda men in a risk reduction education programme In: Culture, Health and Society, 13(1): 45-57.
Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, 1999, Black Venus; Sexualized savages, Primal Fears and Primitive Narratives in Frecnh. Durham: Duke University Press.