Elfriede Dreyer

Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela, 2010, watercolour on paper, A3 format. Courtesy Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela

Decolonising Sarah Baartmann

South African artist Senzeni Marasela’s Covering Sarah Baartman series engages with the tragic history of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from the Eastern Cape,  who came to be viewed as an anthropological freak and a sexual novelty in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

  • Elfriede Dreyer
    Elfriede Dreyer

    A colonial figure, Baartman’s birth date is unknown – she was born in the Camdeboo Valley somewhere in the 1770s and died in Paris on 29 December 1815. In 1810 Baartman was taken to London by her employer, Hendrik Cezar, a free black man of slave descent, and William Dunlop, an English doctor who worked at the Cape slave lodge. There she was put on display on stage, mostly in the nude, and became known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, acquiring status as a peculiarity due to the ‘abnormal’ size of her genitalia and buttocks. In 1814 Henry Taylor (Hendrik Cezar) took her to Paris where she was sold to an animal trainer, Réaux, who made her amuse audiences. Specifically Baartman’s steatopygia – a common feature of the Khoikhoi female body – was the curiosity. (Mastamet-Mason (2014:113) argues that the Victorian bustle dress silhouette, which became fashionable in 1870 in Europe, can be attributed to Baartman’s physique, since Baartman was displayed in Europe between 1810 and 1815, and the bustle dress was only introduced in Paris in 1880.)


    Baartman came to be viewed as an anthropological freak and a sexual novelty, and she had to perform certain acts (such as mimicking savagery) against her will – first in carnivals, later in aristocratic salons and finally in brothels where she ended up as a prostitute. Georges Cuvier, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Museum of Natural History at the time, encountered Baartman in this context and started studying her in terms of scientific racism, mainly with the objective to establish a missing link between animals and human beings. Tragically, Baartman died in 1815 as a result of exploitation and abuse. Her genital parts and brain were initially preserved in Europe for further study, but after much deliberation (driven by Nelson Mandela) her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, and buried on 9 August 2002 on Vergaderingskop, together with the return home of other disenfranchised individuals under apartheid (Moudileno 2009).

    A number of problematics issue from this narrative. Firstly, Baartman’s body was considered to be abnormal and animal-like; yet the Europeans found her sexually attractive enough to have intercourse with her. The implication here is bestiality. In 2012, in I critiqued an article entitled ‘Africa’s repulsive charm’ of French anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle (2008) in which he launched an unmitigated review of perceived predominant Western perceptions of Africans, describing them inter alia as “intellectually degenerate”; “underdeveloped”; “descendants of the Old Testament Ham” and his “cursed and blood-infected progeny”. In short, he describes Africa as “a continent of utter horror, a theatre of primitive cruelty”, the very reason why “we” (the West?) think of Africa in a “libidinous and viral” [my emphasis] way, generating a line of thought so deep and wide that it “permeates the economic, social, cultural and religious domains”. I argued that Amselle’s polarisation of the relationship between the West and Africa – as deeply ambivalent and postulated as the attraction of opposites and ‘sexual intercourse’ – represents a prime example of Othering hate speech towards African people and reaffirms the continuing deep and wide divide between the West and Africa, which still undercuts Africa as a secondary role player and displays a modernist binary view of history. Baartman represented a sexual Other in the context of such a so-called libidinous attraction between Europe and Africa.


    Secondly, the Hottentot Venus was a figure of oppression and in feminist perspective she became a supreme symbol of objectification being subjected to the tyranny of the white male colonial gaze. Mastamet-Mason (2014:115) argues that until the twenty-first century, full-figured African women were considered “attractive, were respected, and their bodies represented wealth, fertility and good health”. (There are fattening houses used specifically to fatten women in West African countries, highlighting the fact that some African countries still value and idolise full-figured women (Mastamet-Mason 2014:115)).The Othering gaze is pertinently racial here, not only in personal terms in the Othering of body shape, or in terms of gender in the Othering of gender difference, but mainly in terms of cultural Othering in the European gaze at the nude African woman. The colonial, Westernised view on nude Africans is described by Benjamin Talton (in Jackson et al 2009:82) as follows: “Within European discourses on African cultural characteristics, African women were ‘silent icons of the primitive – the ultimate “others”’. Left largely undefined by Europeans obsessed with categorising people and places, African women became the epitome of Africa’s ‘darkness’. … Public ‘nudity’ was [considered as] symptomatic of a general lack of moral restraint among Africans; an outgrowth of their unbridled sexuality, and a testament to their need for Christian redemption.” The colonial European view was based on subjective perception, lack of factual information and mythologising of ‘dark Africa’, a view that seems to be persisting yielded by the cited Amselle’s article. In many African countries, limited economic and natural resources played a formidable role in determining people’s access to cloth and clothing that had nothing to do with intellectual capacity, intelligence or sexuality. In fact, since the 1950s there were several anti-nudist internal campaigns in Ghana and elsewhere. Men became clothed long before women, which formed part of the cultural view of woman as possession, but it was also due to lack of financial means to acquire clothing. Africa is vast, and it took long for traders to transport and distribute their wares.  However, in the case of Baartman, a very different scenario was playing out:  she was deliberately unclothed and exploited in the nude for sexual and entertainment reason, and her nudeness thus did not present as part of her cultural tradition.


    Thirdly, the Baartman narrative manifests as a discourse on ‘disposable’ bodies as ‘waste products’ of the colonial impulse. Following Braidotti (2011:6), it can be argued that the “disposable” bodies of “women, youth, and others who are racialized or marked off by age, gender, sexuality, and income, reduced by marginality, come to be inscribed with particular violence” in the regime of such powers. Baartman was not only perceived as an object of curiosity, but also as abject, representing those elements and groups of people in society that are perceived to be unwanted and should be eradicated. Politically and culturally the nurturing of notions of abject is potentially dangerous and a concept that in the past has led to genocidal regimes such as Nazism and apartheid. Currently the migrant crisis that many countries are facing has once again stirred such sentiments and actions, and in certain cases has even led to inverted racism or abjection in the redress of the past.

    The use of red water colour in Marasela’s Covering Sarah series conjures chilling reminders of the pain and suffering inflicted by the constructs of Othering and abjecting. The artist’s drawing lines on one hand remind of colonial travelogues inscripted with handwritten anecdotes, descriptions of journeys and scenes, and linear drawings of people, the land and other curiosities; on the other hand, it simulates running blood, pain and torment. The use of embroidery in Theodorah, Senzeni and Sarah I ambivalently harks back to both Victorian pastime and African women’s well-known craft of embroidery. Embroidery as an activity evokes associations of quiet meditation, but also of violence through the needle’s rupturing of the cloth. In the latter work there is suggestion of evocation, redress and reconstruction in the physical covering of Sarah with a cloth of some sort, thus a restitution of the past. The cloth becomes like a kind of honorary cloak, as evidence of Baartman’s elevation to celebrity or sanctified status.


    The Covering Sarah series affirms the volatility of cultural perceptions and conjectures about others, as well as the socio-political changes that have occurred in Africa affecting the discourses around body types and the clothed/unclothed body. The work reminds us of the dangers and vulnerabilities lurking in obsessive Othering and radicalising difference.

    About Senzeni Marasela

    Senzeni Marasela is a female South African artist of Zulu origin, born in Thokoza, KwaZulu Natal in 1977. She is currently completing a MA degree in Art History from Wits University (SA); she has exhibited widely in the national and international contexts; and she has been awarded several grants and residencies, for example from Devon Arts Residency (Scotland) The Ampersand Foundation and Axis Gallery in New York; The Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam; and the Kokkola Art Academy in Vasa. Her artist website is found at http://www.senzenimarasela.com.



    • Amselle, J-L. 2008. Africa’s repulsive charm, translated by R. Baldinelli. Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture Volume 2, Spring, 2008:11 – 18.
    • Braidotti, R. 2011. Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. Second edition. Gender and culture: A series of Columbia University Press. New York: University of Columbia Press.
    • Dreyer, E. 2012. Functionality and social modernism in the work of untrained South African artists. Third Text (Vol. 26:6, November):767–780.
    • Jackson, S, Demissie, F, Goodwin, M (eds). 2009. Imagining, writing, (re)reading the black body. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
      Mastamet-Mason, A. 2014. The Saartjie Baartman body shape versus the Victorian dress: the untold African treasures. Open Journal of Social Sciences 02(08): 113- 120. DOI: 10.4236/jss.2014.28017.
    • Moudileno, L. 2009. Returning remains: Saartjie Baartman, or the “Hottentot Venus” as transnational postcolonial icon. Forum for modern language studies 45(2): 200-212.
    • Talton, B. ‘All the women must be clothed’: The anti-nudity campaign in northern Ghana, 1957 – 1969. In Jackson, S, Demissie, F, Goodwin, M (eds). 2009. Imagining, writing, (re)reading the black body. Pretoria: Unisa Press.



    published March 2020