On Exhibit

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What is normal? Natural? Beautiful?

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 7,286 buttock augmentations and 3,655 buttock lifts were performed in in the U.S. in 2012. Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was a Khoekhoe woman who had elogated labia and steatopygia, an extreme accumulation of fat on the buttocks. These features were genetic and not usual among the Khoekhoe. Award-winning author Barbara Chase-Riboud writes a fictionalized account of Baartman’s life in Hottentot Venus: A Novel.    

In 1810, Baartman was taken from South Africa to London where she was displayed as a “freak show” exhibit that provided the “missing link” between humans and apes. She was known as the “Hottentot Venus.” The term “Hottentot” was a derogatory name for the Khoekhoe by Dutch settlers in South Africa, while Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Baartman died in France in 1815, and her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002.

Chase-Riboud’s work provides primarily first-person narration by Baartman. The novel has lush descriptions of various locations, including 19th century Cape Town, London and Paris. It is clear that Chase-Riboud conducted a great deal of historical research for this novel. She details Baartman’s travels, as well as her legal, financial, and medical issues. The novel raises painful questions about beauty, normalcy, exploitation, and otherness. I became so interested in Baartman that I wanted to know more about her real life. I never felt that I got to know Baartman, the character that Chase-Riboud created, since the novel seemed caught between the historical Baartman and the fictional one.

Bottom line: Read it but not at bedtime.

For more information, see:
Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: “The Hottentot Venus”
Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires

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