“The Venus Hottentot Is Unavailable for Comment”: Questioning the Politics of Representation Through Aesthetic Practices

  • Jorunn Gjerden
  • Kari Jegerstedt
  • Željka Švrljuga
Part of the Citizenship, Gender and Diversity book series (FEMCIT)


The worldwide interest in the historical figure of The Hottentot Venus (aka Sara Baartman) attests to the desire to rework colonial configurations of “black woman” to open more inclusive and egalitarian notions of citizenship and democracy in a postcolonial world. But how can contemporary practices revise the nineteenth century’s objectifying gaze on The Hottentot Venus without simply repeating it? Can attempts to render voice and point of view to her result in anything but new reductive representations? Can aesthetic practices help problematize and disrupt not only hegemonic representations but also the systems of representation as such, in ways that effectively undermine dominant power structures?

Inspired by Spivak’s assertion that “the figure of woman is pervasively instrumental in the shifting of the function of discursive systems”, this chapter investigates three art fictions—the French film Vénus noire (Abdellatif Kechiche), the American play Venus (Suzan Lori-Parks), and the South African novel Davids Story (Zoë Wicomb)—that seek to circumvent the pitfalls of “speaking for” and “speaking about” the other by offering provisional and partial solutions, always in need of subsequent revisions. The texts work to supplement representation through aesthetic practices such as opacity, re-cycling, and subtraction, thus offering alternative visions in which “(black) woman” is not necessarily re-figured in (new) gendered and racialized discourses, but pre-figures the possibility of alternative modes of citizenship.


Double Bind Representational Mode Chattel Slavery Title Character Newspaper Clipping 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Over the last years, there has been a proliferation of political, cultural, and academic/scientific refigurations of Sara Baartman alias the Hottentot Venus. The interest in her life story attests to a significant discursive shift: from being a symbol of the so-called lower races, Baartman has become a symbol of the critique of the very construction of race, as well as a signifier of the struggle for freedom and rights along racial and sexual/gendered lines. Associated with monstrosity, Baartman came to be known for her performances in “freak shows” in London and Paris in the early 1800s. George Cuvier’s anatomical scrutiny and dissection secured her an “afterlife” in the Musée de l’homme in Paris, where her genitalia, skeleton, and body cast were on display until the early 1970s. Subsequently, Baartman has become a key figure in attempts to restore the abjected, racialized female body in feminist, anti-racist and postcolonial terms. When her remains were finally repatriated to South Africa in 2002, she had already become a symbol of the suffering of the African people both abroad and at home, and of the need to restore dignity for new collectivities to prosper.

Baartman’s emblematic role in recent discourses can be understood as an affirmation of the need to rework colonial constructions of “racialized woman” in order to generate more inclusive and egalitarian notions of citizenship and democracy in the postcolonial world. As South African author Zoë Wicomb notes, her case epitomizes central postmodern concerns: “the inscription of power in scopic relations; the construction of woman as racialized and sexualized other; the colonization and violation of the body; the role of scientific discourse in bolstering both the modernist and colonial projects” (Wicomb 1998: 93). But how can contemporary practices revise the nineteenth-century objectifying gaze on the Hottentot Venus without simply repeating it? Can attempts to grant her voice and perspective result in anything but new reductive representations? And does not the attempt to do her justice re-appropriate her iconic status in new ideological discourses?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s assertion that “the figure of woman is pervasively instrumental in the shifting of the function of discursive systems” (Spivak 2003: 74) neatly encapsulates the dilemmas involved in refiguring Baartman. Offered by Spivak as an allegory that signals an “unimaginable future ‘to come’” (Spivak 2003: 32), the assertion aims to “restore social agency to the dreamer” (Spivak 2003: 75). In this sense, it may be seen to advance a feminist practice: that the (reading of the) re-figuration of woman may in fact result in the shifting of discursive systems. At the same time, however, the sentence functions as a warning to feminist practices: Insofar as the re-figuring of “woman” is always already part of the shifting of the function of discursive systems, how can we know whether feminist re-figurations do not, unwittingly, take part in a more general shift which serves to uphold power relations instead of providing radical breaks?

The dilemmas involved in feminist attempts to refigure derogatory conceptions and images are closely related to the problem of representation insofar as representation always implies the double meaning of “‘speaking for,’ as in politics and… ‘re-presentation’ [‘speaking about’], as in art or philosophy” (Spivak 1988: 275). Unable to escape the question of who speaks for whom and in whose (and what) interest, representation does not only constitute the very mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, or even radical alterity, but also subordinates the subject to the laws of discursive power and hegemony. The figure of Baartman is exemplary in this respect: entangled with questions of representation from the beginning, it has always been steeped in power relations. The derogatory alias under which Baartman performed combines the Dutch colonizer’s perception of the Khoisan vernacular (Hottentot) and the image of the Roman goddess of love (Venus) as the epitome of beauty, femininity, and sexuality; her exploitation by different “managers” made her into economic, cultural, and sexual currency both in life and posthumously. The issue of representation and power has thus been vital to the critical debates on Baartman: from discussions of nineteenth-century medical and artistic constructions of black female sexuality (Gilman 1985) to the materialist concerns and class struggle involved in constructions of race—including the degree of re-commodification entrenched in the very establishing of Baartman as an object of research (Magubane 2001; Qureshi 2004). As a result, the debate has moved on to representational alternatives and the ethics of representation, exploring the possibilities of re-presentation without representation (Gquola 2010; Baderoon 2011). The question that arises from these debates is whether art (and philosophy) may in fact supplement, rather than merely complement, politics.

The following pages examine three recent generic re-visions of the Hottentot Venus story that adopt various aesthetic practices that address the problems of representation in its double meaning: Venus by the American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (1997), Davids Story by the South African novelist Zoë Wicomb (2001), and Vénus noire by the French-Tunisian filmmaker Abellatif Kechiche (2010). They not only share the desire to ascribe different significance to the figure of Baartman by reworking archival material and contemporary discourses, but also the critical awareness of taking part in what has come to be known as the “Baartman industry”, wary of the risk of yet another re-commodification. Situating themselves aesthetically within this double bind—the need to rework and the danger of co-optation—they both highlight and seek to subvert the diverse contexts in which Baartman has acquired symbolic status. Notably, they do so through the aesthetics of dismemberment/dissemination and emptiness/absence, thus recalling the narrative mechanisms of earlier colonial representations of her. Of special interests here is Cuvier’s detailed autopsy report in which the description of Baartman’s features is either rendered poetically or is compared “scientifically” to those of other races and species (Cuvier 1817). The ensuing result is a fragmented narrative which teems with an excess of information that distorts the woman the document seeks to describe. Another example is the French vaudeville La Vénus Hottentote ou Haine aux Françaises (Théaulon, Dartois and Brasier 1814), contrived to profit from Baartman’s success in Paris and to jettison its competition, which literally reduces the Hottentot Venus to masquerade and caricature, signifying her presence through absence by dramatizing the absent core. In their engagement with colonial power structures, contemporary political issues and parodic modes of rewriting, Kechiche, Parks and Wicomb redeploy these colonial representational modes—dismemberment and absence—in an attempt to make Baartman signify otherwise. To what extent might this “otherwise” open for what is radically different and new?

In order to explore the issue, the differences between these three texts need to be taken into consideration. They do not only refer to historical and geopolitical contexts (French, American, and African) and genres (film, drama, novel), but also relate to the specific aesthetic strategies through which dismemberment and absence are played out. In what follows, Kechiche’s attempts to interrupt Western meaning production as a neutral approach to the understanding of others will be analysed as a manifestation of opacity. Park’s rewriting of historical documents and its own dramatic utterance will be examined as the embodiment of recycling aesthetics. In turn, Wicomb’s more radical gesture of withdrawing the figure of Baartman from dominant discourses will be analysed according to Alain Badiou’s concept of subtraction.1 Ultimately we suggest that the aesthetic dimensions of these works have the potential to initiate a deliberation beyond the hegemonic discourse of representational politics, not because the texts avoid the double bind of rejecting/reproducing stereotypes, but precisely because they confront it.

Covers and Silence: Vénus Noire

In comparison with Parks’s play and Wicomb’s novel, Kechiche’s Vénus noire is a fairly traditional narrative that doesn’t seem to undertake much in order to represent Baartman otherwise. But the film’s subdued tone may in fact be considered its very opposition to instrumentality, which may be argued with reference to Martinican Édouard Glissant’s term “opacity”. Inspired by the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Caribbean archipelago, opacity implies both resistance to the Western colonial image of the world as transparent and available for conquest, and possibilities of new conceptions of community. The following will focus on how the impassable and the silence of Vénus noire may lead in similar directions.

From the very start, Vénus noire associates the representation of Sara Baartman with the dilemmas of covering and uncovering. The film’s first footage enigmatically dwells on a cloth covering a full-size plaster cast of her body, which is eventually unveiled in the Royal Academy of Medicine where Cuvier, two years after her death, presents his meticulously illustrated analysis of her body as an example of the lowest specimen of the human race. At first sight, then, Kechiche appears to ruthlessly render and leave uncontested the nineteenth-century’s objectifying gaze on the Hottentot Venus; the scene even insists on the eagerness to uncover, expose, and dismember that characterizes colonial knowledge production. While such a strategy might be efficient in order to provoke the spectator’s resentment and disgust when faced with the exploitation of Baartman, it also constitutes an ethically problematic enunciative position. As Aylin Basaran notes: “Black Venus is a balancing act, which poses itself on the thin line between displaying a (historical) social reality and—by trying to depict this—reproducing its gaze, especially with the medium film which has the tendency to facilitate some kind of voyeurism” (Basaran 2010).

At the same time, since the establishment of Baartman as an iconic victim of gendered colonial oppression risks becoming equally instrumental, the film enacts Spivak’s double bind through a set of narrative strategies that undermine its own reproduction of the nineteenth-century’s gaze, but without annulling it. Interestingly and provocatively, Kechiche seems to achieve this by adopting and imperceptibly reworking the mode of figuration of the 1814 vaudeville mentioned in the introduction. Constructed as a simple comedy of errors, La Vénus Hottentote ou Haine aux Françaises (“The Hottentot Venus or the Hatred of Frenchwomen”) represents the Hottentot Venus solely by means of a disguised female French character posing as her. She thus appears as nothing but an absent and shadowy figure deprived of speech, situated out of reach behind the veils that mask or indeed replace her. However, when the opening scene of Vénus noire poignantly echoes this covered archival representation, staging it as a clear contrast to Cuvier’s uncovering, it has the effect of announcing and installing a supplementary representational mode that hampers and works against the stereotyped colonial gaze through a subtle re-vision.

A crucial component of such supplementing re-vision in the film is reflexivity. A series of discursive, pictorial and plastic representations of the Hottentot Venus appearing throughout the narrative (statuettes, drawings, a popular song, a critical article, her own performance), serve on the one hand to emphasize the image of Baartman as objectified victim of Western typecasting. This is very evident in a scene where Caezar, the South African “managing” her London exhibition, is shown modelling one of the clay statuettes, letting his fingers slide along her represented body, powerfully materializing how he literally moulds Baartman into the Hottentot Venus, as if the other could be grasped and manipulated like any matter or object at one’s disposal. A suggestive parallel to this gesture reappears in the closing dissection scene, where Baartman’s body is smeared in grease before plaster is poured onto it to make the cast that will solidify her figure for posterity. These scenes thus critically associate the nineteenth-century staging of the Hottentot Venus, whether gendered/sexual or scientific, with the connected (male) Western projects of making sense of the world and appropriating it (Spivak 1988: 76–86). But simultaneously, they also reflexively accentuate the movie itself as a fabricated, provisional figuration in need of subsequent correction. After all, even the unveiling of the cast in the opening scene only reveals an empty shell. Moreover, the unveiling sequence is part of a circular composition, as we return to the scenario at the end of the film, where Cuvier’s assistant, silent and expressionless, covers the cast with the cloth prior to the professor’s speech, suggesting that we know nothing more about Baartman at this point than we did at the beginning of the film. The film’s circular and reflexive composition thus plays the double bind of retaining and subverting previous representations by setting up opposite positions which are granted equal weight while at the same time mutually problematizing one another.

In a similar manner, Kechiche’s subtle combination of style and narration establishes a formal structure that both gives and does not give voice to Sara Baartman by relating the story from her own perspective, but only in a limited and unclear way.

As far as narrative perspective is concerned, what we learn is largely limited to what Baartman herself perceives and knows at any time (except for the essential scenes taking place after her death). Some point-of-view shots allow us to share her perceptions (like a frontal glimpse of the audience from inside the bars of the cage she is kept in on stage), and shot/reverse shot technique is used in some dialogues in a conventional manner, but in others carefully avoided, for instance during the scientific examination in the Jardin des Plantes, where Baartman is only ever looked at. Even if we thus partly share her subjective experiences, the narration does stay mainly external, and we sometimes get crucial information concerning the main character that she does not herself have access to (for instance, during scenes where she is heavily drunk, or is being spied on).

In addition, Baartman’s understanding of what goes on around her, and the spectator’s insight into it, are limited by language problems. While she does participate in dialogue, and actually sporadically protests against details concerning her exhibition as well as the scientists’ examination of her, as a rule her utterances are few, short, and often ambiguous. Not only has she trouble understanding what others say, and communicating her views, but some of her statements also contradict previous ones, like her testimony given during the trial against Caezar, where she insists that she is not a slave but an actress who gets half the show’s income. The words are rendered in her voice, but to what extent may the assertions be attributed to her? The film doesn’t take sides, or elaborate on the matter.

Finally, the main reason for the Baartman character’s both restricted and paradoxically poignant impact on the narrative is an unusual combination of framing, that is, frequent facial close-ups, and impassive acting style. Extreme close-ups of the faces of the show’s audience, of Caezar and the judges during the trial are crosscut with parallel close-ups of Baartman’s face. The effect of this procedure is striking: although we get so close that we see pores in the character’s skin and emerging drops of sweat, we actually find ourselves miles away, since Baartman’s face (and often those of other characters) remains almost completely motionless. The combined emphasis on physical closeness and inaccessibility to inner life thus powerfully triggers strong emotional involvement, but without granting the spectator the secure conventional positions of either psychologically identifying with the main character as subject or objectifying her through othering victimization.

As already indicated, this may be interpreted as an ethically motivated narrative choice which paradoxically seeks to represent Baartman by insisting on her opacity, in a way that recalls Glissant’s use of this term.2 According to Glissant, opacity is whatever interrupts the working of the Western ideal of transparency that considers itself a neutral approach to the understanding of others. Opacity “distracts me from absolute truths whose guardian I might believe myself to be” and makes me “sensitive to the limits of every method” (Glissant 2000: 192). If we are to be able to envision a humanity where “[e]very Other is a citizen and no longer a barbarian” (Glissant 2000: 190), this change requires a radical “right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity” (Glissant 2000: 190). To Glissant, linguistic, cultural and geographical opacity which separates individuals and groups at the same time is the very condition permitting them to get close to each other: in order for connections to actually be connections—and for representation to actually re-present—they must avoid dissolving into appropriation and assimilation.

In Glissant’s thinking, opacity thus becomes a key condition for the possibility of achieving agency and participation without instrumentalizing subordination, and for the forming of more inclusive communities in a globalized world. Vénus noire cinematographically articulates and acts out a similar non-binary logic in a scene where racialized typecasting is interrupted by the unexpected, and by a following onset of a new kind of affective and embodied response and involvement that allow singularity and togetherness to equally amplify one another.

One of the numbers of the Hottentot Venus’s stage performances in London consists of singing while playing an African instrument. On one occasion, she decides to alter this act: rather than produce barbaric noises out of tune, in accordance with the audience’s expectations, she starts to sing a real song. All of a sudden, as if she remembers something from the past, she straightens her back and starts performing the song very softly, apparently forgetting completely about both her role and her audience. The song is a lullaby, characterized by a trance-inducing, repetitive rhythm. It is the only example in the film of Baartman expressing herself in her own Khoe language. Interestingly, from the middle of the sequence, in a point-of-view shot attributed to Baartman, close-ups focus on her perception of the audience’s responses: confusion, astonishment, slightly opened mouths, bodies swaying gently to the rhythm of the music, even eyes filling up with tears. Some spectators start singing along, adopting the incomprehensible words of the foreign lyrics offered to them.

This brief episode seems crucial for the film’s questioning of representational modes in the sense that through specific narrative choices, it brings into play dynamics of inclusion and exclusion constituted not by a conquering establishment of sameness, nor by a construction of gendered and/or racialized otherness as the dialectical negation of the self, but by an experience of the drawing near of alterity through which both previous positions are unsettled. As such, the collective yet unshared experience of the lullaby performatively changes performer and audience alike, if only for a moment, and so appears as an opening towards new textured forms of relationship which may enable the founding of non-instrumental representation and non-assimilative communities—through the tangible closeness of impenetrability.

Re-membering the Hottentot Venus: Venus

As an example of a larger diasporic paradigm, Baartman has lent her name to the figure of Black Venus in the Atlantic world of chattel slavery which has enabled a double exploitation of black female bodies—the alleged embodiments of concupiscence and otherness, pleasure and repulsion. As a symbol of sexual and racial oppression, Baartman has struck a chord in the USA, judging by the creative and critical output.

Parks’s Venus signals with its title a restorative agenda by leaving out the pejorative moniker from Baartman’s stage name. Its aim—to inspire humanity and dignity in the subject of history—follows the playwright’s understanding of theatre as “the perfect place to ‘make’ history”, “to create ‘new’ historical events” (Parks 2013b: 4–5). This new event is a postmodern project that contrives representation by way of recovering practices that work with repetition with a difference: re-cycling, re-membering, and re-vision. A somewhat daring concept in name—re-cycling—is adopted as a creative means of reworking historical material into a new plot and alternative representation which jazz aesthetics of “forming, reforming, and informing” boosts (Drukman et al. 1995: 57). Predicated on reformulation, the deployed aesthetic strategies work towards provisional solutions at the level of the political as well.

By configuring the title figure as the goddess of love, the play switches the focus from the particular (bodily markers) to the general (potential to love and be loved) through naming. Registered with her full name only in the dramatis personae, the title character appears under generic designations: The Girl or The Venus (as subject of utterance and desire) and as The Venus Hottentot (as the object of the gaze, desire, and the statements of others). Parks adopts a generic politics of naming for the entire cast, intimating, as it were, generality and particularity which the definite article grants (Larson 2012: 27), allowing the general to signify on many Black Venus figures and their exploiters in the Black Atlantic. When, in turn, the eponymous character speaks of herself as The Venus Hottentot, it is always by way of detachment and dissociation: “I am called The Venus Hottentot”, and “The Venus Hottentot is unavailable for comment” (Parks 1997: 74). Hence, what the Hottentot Venus qua myth “states”, the “woman” cannot since she is both outside of the myth and cannot identify with it. Accordingly, the second line signals Parks’ politics of representation that resists speaking for her title figure in political terms.

Representation in Venus and of The Venus is predicated on the figure of circle (or cycle) that is associated with the circulation of images, language, myth, money, and a cyclical understanding of time. The figure of the cycle is also embedded in the play’s re-cycling aesthetics: official historical documents (newspaper clippings, dictionary entries, glossaries, and Cuvier’s autopsy report) and the popular culture material of the day (advertisements, cartoons, the broadside ballad, and the vaudeville) are adopted and adapted as “evidence” of the colonial archive against which the title figure is cast. As footnotes, asides, and parabases, in other words Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte that disrupt and punctuate the narrative, these textual fragments testify to the limits of knowledge about the historical figure that can only provisionally be fashioned by way of imaginative making. The play’s double bind has somehow been underplayed and Parks’ representation critiqued for its “re-objectification” and “re-commodification” (Young 1997). Even if there is a danger in critiquing the colonial politics of hostility by staging it, despite the fact that representation is done by inversion and narrative and rhetorical mechanisms that provide ironic distance and ludic, linguistic turns, Parks’s play gestures towards what Spivak, following Derrida, calls “a politics of friendship to come” (Spivak 2003: 13). The politics of presenting “otherwise” underlies the production of meaning and the impossibility of knowing the other. A cut-and-paste technique that the playwright adopts as a way of cutting up the historical evidence appears to mime the anatomists’ dissection procedure in reverse, whereby pieces of historical fabric are disseminated throughout the Venus body. The re-cycled historical scraps in one way or another relate to the image of the Hottentot Venus, to which the playwright’s “Rep and Rev” (short for “Repetition and Revision”) aesthetics gives life (Parks 2013a: 8–9).

As a result, re-cycling and “Rep and Rev” provide an alternative reading of historical material that sheds light on the play’s politics of representation. The play within the play, For the Love of the Venus—a riff on the earlier mentioned French vaudeville—expands the love agenda with a critique of power relations through parody: inspired by the colonial plot, the white man commissions “something called ‘The Hottentot Venus’” (Parks 1997: 49) to be brought to him,3 which compels his fiancé to impersonate the Hottentot Venus, eventually winning him back. An allegory on Cuvier’s access to Baartman’s corpse, which an excerpt from the autopsy report in the penultimate scene punctuates, the inserted plot demonstrates how the great chain theory is the white man’s need for self-confirmation and justification of his superiority, with the white woman as his accomplice in exploiting the Khosian body for self-interest. By a series of displacements, from the advertisement (which announces the Hottentot Venus show), to the fiancé in disguise (that replaces and erases her), and lastly to The Venus as audience in the final scene of the inserted play, Parks unmasks the colonial parody as méconnaissance, thus a result of white ideological convictions. Displaced in the fiancé’s body and babble which is construed as what the white man wants to hear, the Hottentot Venus is presence qua absence in the white imaginary; she is a commodity to be put to whatever ideological use the white plot needs, whereby The Venus is both a means and a witness to her commodification.

By putting the “thingified” woman—“something wild” (Parks 1997: 48)—on a par with available exotic imports, the play puts its finger on the commodification of the racialized female body as part of a larger, desire-driven colonial enterprise. The established nexus between the Hottentot Venus and chocolate as sexual and pleasure stimulants respectively is used as a critical tool to ponder the colonial mindset. Like her body, chocolates are associated with sexuality and race in their shape, design, and colour: “Capezzoli di Venere” (annotated as chocolates in the shape of the nipples of Venus in the provided Glossary) and lozenges with imprinted images of an African child and a Pharaoh link up consumerism and Africa that the Hottentot Venus personifies. For The Venus, chocolates are treats and antidepressants; according to the appended “Brief History of Chocolates”, they are also “a great source of fat” (Parks 1997: 156), thus a general condition with which the play hints at the historically racist reading of the Khoisan body geography as racial anomaly, judging by detailed measurements of subcutaneous fat of her thighs and steatopygia that the autopsy report details.

The carnivalesque conjoining of top-down/bottom-up snippets of history—in principle all related to The Venus’s body configuration—places her anatomy centre stage, either as object of the voyeuristic, consumerist gaze of the general audience or of the anatomical scrutiny and scalpel of the men of science. Both, however, disregard the woman behind her body parts. Hence, as the play reveals with a signature of mourning that a disjunctive “but” grants—“But No One Ever Noticed/Her Face Was Streamed with Tears” (Parks 1997: 42, 47)—all attention is awarded her genitalia and buttocks, which a few newspaper clippings and sympathetic testimonies confirm. Although sporadic, the loathing attitude to the general audience’s characteristic cheer that accompanies The Venus’ showing extorts a single lament by the title figure—“Oh, God: Unloved” (Parks 1997: 36)—that bemoans the verbal and sexual abuse that she suffers. A rare case of grievance that vents the protagonist’s point of view in contrast to an array of external representations, the moan is one of the signs of resignation that the character, who has been schooled in coercion and submission, utters in an imaginary transfer of agency that the play allows. But agency is literally a matter of question that she asks—“Do I have a choice?” (Parks 1997: 17, 87)—which is a clever rhetorical stunt that gets and does not get an answer and remains a rhetorical question at the level of the plot.

Though choice is limited, desire and dreams are limitless, which is how Parks installs imaginary social agency into her dreamer, albeit cautioning that a dream cuts both ways: from dreams of marriage, home, and love to dreams of social ascent and abuse of servants that is fashioned on the experience of the colonial enterprise. Hence, an imaginary conversation with Napoleon over “the Negro issue” and questions of slavery reads as a farce (Parks 1997: 135). No dream of a common language that would work towards gender and class equality but a dream of dominance that would uphold the system that has kept her down underlies the reverie and serves as warning against the contagious effects of power relations.

Parks’ love plot between The Venus and The Docteur is only a provisional solution. This imaginary, reparative act gestures “a to comeness” (Spivak 2003: 6), which will not question the possibility of the proposed relationship. Motivated by traces of uncanny tenderness towards Baartman that Cuvier’s autopsy report divulges (Cuvier 1817: 263, 266), the love plot appears to be out of accord with the document’s focus on her shape and simian looks. Placed in the very centre of the play, the report qua conference talk titled “The Dis(-re)memberment of the Venus Hottentot” is literally displaced because it is delivered during the Intermission. Thus the play’s double message that calls for a break yet undercuts it with the talk reveals a politics of representation that critically stages its taxonomic, anatomical contents for The Chorus of the 8 Anatomists. Unless the audience follows The Docteur’s unremitting encouragement to take a break and leave the “Anatomical Theater”, it joins the Anatomists as witnesses to and accomplices in the horrendous dissection report. Its anatomical vocabulary fuels estrangement that “A Glossary of Medical Terms” provided at the end of the play enhances, which in part justifies why Parks’s plays have been characterized as “dense, i.e. unreadable, impenetrable” (Diamond in Drukman et al. 1995: 63; Oddenino 2011: 121). In a series of displacements that the Verfremdungeffekt produces, The Venus Hottentot is dismembered and disremembered in a pars pro toto ruse. Concurrently, the report’s fragments are disseminated throughout the play signifying, as it were, on the Venus’ mutilated body. In a similar gesture, the play displaces the Cuvier study’s centrepiece—the discussion of the enigmatic Hottentot apron, or the labia minora—to its end, as if trying to hide the title figure’s intimate parts with which Cuvier’s study is obsessed.

The masculine/feminine nexus that rests on the profit/love and intellect/sensory dichotomy is not unambiguous and neither is The Venus figure’s representation. When words are lacking, or a scene demands reflection, the Rest and Spell stratagems as breaks of different length are deployed to carve space for the protagonist both on paper and on stage. Instead of an exchange of words, the play stages a quiet exchange of looks, allowing brief moments of silence to “speak” by simply listing the names of “interlocutors” on the page. As open signifiers, Rest and Spell detain action and mediate representation by the very presence in space that the figures occupy, at the same time as they prefigure one of the textually proposed causes of the Venus figure’s death—the gaze.

By inserting her title character in the midst of different collectivities that the play’s four choruses stand for—the Spectators, the Human Wonders, the Court, and the Anatomists—Parks seems to suggest that agenda-driven communities act in self-interest and deploy the sexual, racial, and/or ethnic other for their own political purposes. By proposing love as a means of overcoming binary thinking, opening to the other, and accepting difference, the playwright opens for an egalitarian politics in an unimaginable future.

Signifying Through Subtraction: Davids Story

Wicomb’s Davids Story portrays the anti-apartheid freedom fighter David’s attempts to recreate his family history, thus constructing for himself an identity as a “coloured” comrade within the ANC. It is the only text in our material that does not explicitly retell Baartman’s story; nor does Baartman figure in the title. Nonetheless, the novel opens by positioning her as the very nucleus of (historical) narration. As the female scrivener (to whom David relates his story) states in her “preface”:

[David] was adamant about including a piece on Saartje Baartman, the Hottentot Venus placed on display in Europe. One cannot write nowadays, he said, without a little monograph on Baartman; it would be like excluding history itself (Wicomb 2001: 1; our emphasis).

Yet, although David seems to have written a small treatise on Baartman, and although the female scrivener seemingly agrees to include it in the book, this monograph—history itself—is nowhere to be found. It is only alluded to, in the preface and in a couple of references to David’s work with it—references which, in fact, cast doubt on whether he wrote it at all. As such the piece on Baartman is inscribed negatively, as a “broken promise”. Instead, the novel presents us with a mockery of David’s whole project—to construct a “pure colored identity” along bloodlines—which is not only historically (and biologically) dubious (there is no such thing) but which also repeats the apartheid logic David ideally opposes.

Davids Story may be read as a fictional elaboration of Wicomb’s earlier quoted essay “Shame and Identity” (Wicomb 1998). Here she proclaims Baartman as her icon because “of the nasty, unspoken question of concupiscence that haunts coloured identity, the issue of nation-building implicit in the matter of her return, her contested ethnicity (Black, Khoi or ‘coloured’) and the vexed question of representation” (Wicomb 1998: 93), yet embarks on a critique of “coloured” identity politics without mentioning Baartman again. In both instances, the naming and withdrawal of Baartman can be said to constitute a “politics of subtraction” that makes visible a negativity through which Baartman is refigured apart from the hegemonic rhetoric of rights and nation-building in which she is steeped. The subtraction also questions how the female body can be described within systems of representation, whereby the body is already marked and defined in specific gendered and racialized terms. Rather than re-present Baartman, this gesture serves to cast her in a more radical critique of representation as such.

Like Wicomb’s essay, Davids Story constitutes a critique of the role and logics of identity politics in post-apartheid South Africa. The efforts to create a multicultural nation state along neo-liberal lines demands that a long history of racial and sexual exploitation be “smoothed out”, as it were, yet, at the same time, that race, sexual difference, and “women’s rights” be recognized and accounted for, as a founding gesture of the very multiplicity of the new state. Baartman’s burial played a pivotal role in these efforts; at her funeral former president Thabo Mbeki even claimed that her story is “the story of the African people” (Mbeki 2002). Yet, as Wicomb points out, as long as the economic, social and epistemological structures of apartheid are left intact, to cover Baartman’s body with native soil does not obliterate, nor solve, the remainders of her fate.

Subversively mimicking the burial, Wicomb’s initial naming and subsequent withdrawal of Baartman as an icon and/or nucleus of narration inscribes her in the discourses of nation-building yet withdraws her from under them at the same time, letting her play along in covert ways. Indeed, words and images that are associated with her are scattered around in the novel, attached to different female characters (historical and present, the scrivener included) and serving different functions. The constantly recurring steatopygia (protruding buttocks) is for instance used to carry water and hide secret documents, as well as to signify obesity, sexual desirability, visibility and invisibility; David’s wife bears different versions of her first name (Saartjie, Sarah, Sara, Sally). Ironically the novel also traces David’s lineage back to George Cuvier, from whom David purportedly has inherited the green eyes that not only mark him as “hybrid”, but also aligns his words with the male colonial gaze. Thus Baartman’s story is figured as a series of displacements that destabilize David’s own narrative. Most importantly, the novel’s very “un-telling” of Baartman’s story is duplicated in its struggle to give form to Dulcie, David’s female “coloured” comrade (and possibly love object) in the freedom struggle. Having been tortured, or being tortured, though it is not known for what reasons or by whom—possibly even by David himself—Dulcie only appears as glimpses of a mutilated body, hints of betrayal and unfulfilled love. David’s most elaborate attempt to tell her story, secured on a piece of paper that the scrivener claims to have gotten from him, conveys only abstract geometrical forms, resembling Cuvier’s autopsy report:

There are the dismembered shapes of a body: an asexual torso, like a dressmaker’s dummy; arms bent the wrong way at the elbows; legs; swollen feet; hands like claws./There is a head, an upside-down smiling head, which admittedly does not resemble her, except for the outline of bushy hair./(…) it is Dulcie who lies mutilated on the page (Wicomb 2001: 205).

By aligning Baartman with Dulcie through displacement, the novel inscribes Dulcie in a longer history of sexual and racial injustice, dramatizing how the figure/figuration of woman continues to haunt South African politics. This re-figuring of Baartman points to the continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial (old and new South Africa), rather than to a break. But the continuity is not left intact; it is broken up. As with Baartman, all that remains of Dulcie—in the text, the written word—is a series of body parts, scattered around. In the last instance this dissemination also makes up the text as such, tying back to Cuvier’s narrative strategies once more. As the scrivener repeatedly notes, her words similarly “slither […] hither and dither” on the page (Wicomb 2001: 34–35).

Davids Story is most commonly read as a typically postmodern novel, questioning the notion of one, knowable truth. Rather, truth is multiple and diverse and cannot be pinned down anywhere (Driver 2001: 216; Samuelson 2007; Marais 2005; Harrow 2006). Indeed, the very first sentence in the novel: “This is, and is not, David’s story” (Wicomb 2001: 1) serves to postulate an ambiguity or uncertainty that will come to structure the text as a whole, where several voices interact and intersect: What is “fact”? What is “fiction”? Who speaks? When and why? Is it, or is it not, David’s story? On the level of the plot, David is not only recording (or making up?) a family past; he is also caught up in a series of present betrayals forming an impenetrable mystery. Yet, as Kenneth Harrow has pointed out, although the novel constantly demands that the reader asks questions as to what is actually happening, it does not provide any answers (Harrow 2006: 65). Instead, “truth” is displayed on the surface of the text—and quite literally so—through the recurrent Caaps dialect “misspelling” of the very word: TRURT, TRURT, TRURT, TRURT (Wicomb 2001: 136), forming a palindrome which leads us in circles, back and forth in the text, back and forth on the page.

At the root of this dispersion, however, is a suppressed truth—the truth of the female body—that cannot be named, cannot be signified but even so, or precisely therefore, structures the whole field of differences. Following the initial subtraction, we can give it a name: Sara Baartman. She is drawn away from under the story, yet at the same time this is precisely how she figures in it. Thus Davids Story is also Baartman’s story; or more precisely, recalling the first sentence of the novel: “This is, and is not, David’s story”, it both “is” and “is not” Baartman’s story. This “is” and “is not” is an effect of a formal subtraction. This subtraction is moreover a primary gesture, making it clear that Davids Story cannot simply be read as a postmodern multiplication of diverse (and absent) truths. But the subtraction also exists prior to its naming it “is” and “is not” Sara Baartman, unknown to both David and the scrivener. This primary subtraction is, however, represented in the novel, but only negatively, forming, as it were, a missing, or absent, mise en abyme.

When David tells the scrivener about his trip to Scotland, a trip somehow connected to his entanglement in treachery and betrayal, he also conveys that he has visited Glasgow museum where he saw the portrait of John Glasford and family, painted by Archibald McLauchlan in 1767. The painting intrigues him and propels him into an almost uncanny moment, drawing his eyes upwards where he clearly sees a black servant amongst the family, staring directly back at him. At a closer look, the figure is gone. It is not in the picture; everybody there is white. Only upon reading the inscription on the plaque does David learn that the painting originally “included a black slave on the left hand, which has since been painted over” (Wicomb 2001: 193). The moment is completely bewildering to David; he swears he didn’t read the description beforehand: “There was nothing to make him think of a black man, not in the People’s Palace, where he did not expect to find the effacement of slavery to be betrayed in representation, as an actual absence” (Wicomb 2001: 193). The scrivener, who doesn’t know the painting and thinks it sounds awful, dismisses David’s story as nonsense.

Nonetheless, the term “actual absence” reads as a comment on the very theme of the novel. It encapsulates the return of the repressed, the whole colonial history David strives to come to terms with and thus unwittingly repeats. But he misconstrues the image. Or rather, he sees only one specific aspect of it. And this misconstruction is gendered. The black man is namely not the only face that has been painted over; the story of the actual painting tells us that it also hides a female face. This face David does not see—nor is it mentioned on the plaque, nor in the novel. Unlike the missing black figure, she is not an “actual absence” but an “‘absent’ absence”. This “invisible” subtraction of a nameless woman forms an absent mise en abyme, only negatively present through the reference to the painting, mirroring the “visible” subtraction of Baartman, displaced to the “absence” of Dulcie, displaced to the “absence” of all the stories that cannot be told, yet exist as disconnected body parts, disconnected words, disseminated on the surface of the text. To the extent that the painted over faces in McLauchlan’s painting also recall the barely visible silhouette of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Black Venus, in Gustave Courbet’s LAtelier du peintre (1855)—painted over at Baudelaire’s own request—all these untellable yet (un-)erasable stories uncannily point back to the figure of the Hottentot Venus.

Thus the formal gestures of subtraction enacted in this novel not only redeploys the image of Baartman in a critique of the sexism inherent in the South African fight for freedom (without appropriating Baartman’s story for itself), it also raises the question of how the female body can be described within a system of representation that has already marked and defined it in very specific terms. In Davids Story this body only speaks through its absence, through what is left of it after its representation has already taken place—as that which cannot be decided, named or represented, but nonetheless functions as the basis for representation as such.

Conclusion, No Closure…

The figure of the Hottentot Venus, which this chapter has singled out as embodiment of the politics of representation by way of aesthetic practices, testifies to a larger cultural and gender/sexual-political agenda that still haunts the multicultural society of today, almost two hundred years after Baartman’s death and three decades after the initial historical and critical scholarship brought the ill-fated figure to the attention of the general public (Gould 1985; Gilman 1985). Its many returns in different cultural environments—France, the USA, and South Africa—that in different ways struggle with a politics of inclusion—be it ethnic, cultural, “racial”, gender/sexual, class, or other—attest to a need for focusing on the culturally repressed or oppressed that the recent, turbulent events in the three countries have brought to the fore. While unable to undo history or allow bygones to be bygones, the aesthetic projects that we have plumbed do not skirt politics but still avoid the pitfalls of representation in crude political terms to the benefit of re-presentation that will keep the memory of the horrific history alive. It is in the politics of re-presentation, in a never-ending need for a renewal that a “representing otherwise” is born.

The many returns that the figure of the Hottentot Venus has “suffered” testify to her symbolic status at the same time that they signal a danger of re-objectification or re-commodification that potentially lie at the heart of “the Baartman industry”. Unless a politically-inspired art fronts a politics of aesthetics by seeking alternative modes of re-presentation, it risks repeating what it tries to challenge or critique. The three texts that this chapter examines debunk in different ways traditional ways of seeing/re-presentation by way of metonymic displacement (dismemberment and absence) and/or defamiliarization (making the familiar unfamiliar), drawing on a common cultural memory yet searching for alternative ways to signify the familiar—with a difference. Paradoxically, this entails that our analysis and conclusions concerning the double bind of revision/repetition cannot avoid falling prey to the very mechanisms to which we draw critical attention. For, by returning to the figure of the Hottentot Venus, our project, too, inevitably participates in the said Baartman industry from a critical-aesthetic perspective as a (white) cultural “intruder”, which should relativize and put into perspective our assertions. As a consequence, the very formulation of this conclusion ultimately becomes problematic. The “representing otherwise” implies that neither art nor critical discourse, including this one, can ever come to an end because they always rest on an ongoing re-negotiation of the past/present and the political/aesthetic dichotomies.


  1. 1.

    Badiou argues that subtraction, defined as “the affirmative aspects of negation” (Badiou 2007), is an integral part of all revolutionary change and suggests that today we need a preliminary or “originary” subtraction: a withdrawing of oneself from under the dominant laws of the political reality (of a situation) to create an autonomous space in which revolutionary possibilities can be thought anew.

  2. 2.

    Dominque Widemann employs the same term in a similar way to analyze Kechiche’s close-ups, but without relating it explicitly to Glissant (Widemann 2010).

  3. 3.

    Parks differentiates between “The Venus Hottentot” and “The Hottentot Venus” designations, of which the latter is historical thus negatively charged and only appears in the inserted play.


  1. Baderoon, G. (2011). Baartman and the private: How can we look at a figure that has been looked at too much? In N. Gordon-Chipembere (Ed.), Representation and black womanhood: The legacy of Sarah Baartman (pp. 65–83). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Badiou, A. (2007). Destruction, negation, subtraction. On Pier Paolo Pasolini. Accessed January 30, 2014, from
  3. Basaran, A. (2010). Representation and the Dominant Gaze. Accessed September 10, 2013, from
  4. Cuvier, G. (1817). Extrait d’observations faites sur le cadavre d’une femme connue à Paris et à Londres sous le nom de Vénus Hottentote. Mémoires dHistoire natuelle 3. Paris: G Doufour, 259–274.Google Scholar
  5. Driver, D. (2001). Afterword. Wicomb Z Davids Story. New York: The Feminist Press.Google Scholar
  6. Drukman, S., Diamond, L., & Parks, S.-L. (1995). Doo-a-Diddly-Dit-Dit: An interview. The Drama Review, 39(3), 56–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gilman, S. (1985). Black bodies, white bodies: Toward an iconography of female sexuality in late nineteenth-century art, medicine, and literature. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), 204–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Glissant, É. (2000). Poetics of relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  9. Gould, S. J. (1985). The Flamingo’s smile. Reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  10. Gquola, P. D. (2010). (Not)representing Sara Baartman. In What is slavery to me? Postcolonial memory and the post-apartheid imagination. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Harrow, K. (2006). The marks left on the surface in Zoë Wicomb’s Davids Story. In F. N. Emenyonu (Ed.), New directions in African literature. Oxford: James Curry Africa World Press.Google Scholar
  12. Kechiche, A. (2010). Vénus noire. Un film dAbdellatif Kechiche. Paris: MK2.Google Scholar
  13. Larson, J. (2012). Understanding Suzan-Lori Parks. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  14. Magubane, Z. (2001). Which bodies matter? Feminism, poststructuralism, race and the curious theoretical Odyssey of the “Hottentot Venus”. Gender and Society, 15(6), 816–834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Marais, M. (2005). Bastards and Bodies in Zöe Wicomb’s Davids Story. Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 40(3), 21–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mbeki, T. (2002). Speech at the funeral of Sarah Bartmann, 9 August 2002. Accessed August 20, 2014, from
  17. Oddenino, I. (2011). “I Wanna Love Something Wild”: A reading of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus. In N. Gordon-Chipembere (Ed.), Representation and black womanhood: The legacy of Sarah Baartman (pp. 121–135). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Parks, S.-L. (1990/1997). Venus. New York: Theatre Communications Group.Google Scholar
  19. Parks, S.-L. (1995/2013a). Elements of style. The American play and other works (pp. 6–18). New York: Theatre Communications Group.Google Scholar
  20. Parks, S.-L. (1995/2013b). Possession. The American play and other works (pp. 3–5). New York: Theatre Communications Group.Google Scholar
  21. Qureshi, S. (2004). Displaying Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”. History of Science, 42(2), 233–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Samuelson, M. (2007). Remembering the nation, dismembering women? Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.Google Scholar
  23. Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the Subaltern speak? In C. Nelson & R. Grossberg (Eds.), Marxism and the interpretation of culture (pp. 271–313). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Spivak, G. C. (2003). Death of a discipline. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Théaulon, Dartois and Brasier. (1814). La Vénus Hottentote ou Haine aux Françaises. Accessed May 9, 2013, from
  26. Wicomb, Z. (1998). Shame and identity: The case of the coloured in South Africa. In D. Attridge & R. Jolly (Eds.), Writing South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Wicomb, Z. (2001). David’s Story. New York: Feminist Press.Google Scholar
  28. Widemann, D. (2010). Cinéma. Vénus noire, d’Abdellatif Kechiche. Accessed September 10, 2013, from
  29. Young, J. (1997). The re-objectification and re-commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus. African American Review, 31(4), 699–708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jorunn Gjerden
    • 1
  • Kari Jegerstedt
    • 2
  • Željka Švrljuga
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Foreign LanguagesUniversity of BergenBergenNorway
  2. 2.Centre for Women and Gender ResearchUniversity of BergenBergenNorway
  3. 3.Department of Foreign LanguagesUniversity of BergenBergenNorway

Personalised recommendations