Cultural Studies I – Sarah Baartman and the Politics of Looking
“The expropriation and appropriation of Sarah Baartman by the colonial and capitalist gaze has lasted long enough. It is not a good idea to create new images of her, because each new image repeats and continues the past exploitation and humiliation of her body.”
In the article The arena of imaginings: Sarah Bartmann and the ethics of representation, Rosemarie Buikema looks into the controversy around Willie Bester’s statue of Sarah Baartman. The statue, made by a South African artist, was put in the library of the University of Cape Town’s Science and Engineering Department. To my surprise, the exhibition of the statue in a Science and Engineering Department offended many of the students. They felt that Sarah’s body was again subject to scientific interrogation, while Sarah, during her life, refused to cooperate with the scientists that wanted to examine her. (Buikema, 2009) Many of these students would agree with the aforementioned statement. However, in this essay I will explain why I do not agree with the statement that the new images of Sarah Baartman repeat and continue the past exploitation and humiliation of her body. In making this argument, it is important to understand that the concept of representation is core to this argument. Representation is here used as “the use of language and images to create meaning about the world around us.” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p. 12) Images of Sarah Baartman are used to create meaning. The statue created by Willie Bester is made up of recycled iron matter. The material brings to mind the different contexts in which her body was circulated during her life. (Buikema, 2009) There are many meanings that can be connected to this statue. The connotation that there is nothing natural about the body of Sarah Baartman, like was the case when she was paraded in freak-shows around Europe, seems the most striking one. That the case of Sarah Baartman is about representation is made abundantly clear in The Life and Times of Sara Baartman as well. At the beginning of the documentary a voice-over observes that Sarah was both a servant and a great attraction, she had been a woman and an ape and more of these distinctions are mentioned. The way she was represented at that time made her what she was then. When she was represented as the Hottentot Venus, she was represented as being an exotic freak; she was the visual representation of racial inferiority and savage sexuality. (Maseko, 1998) As mentioned before, representation is the key word in this essay. The reason why I do not agree with the aforementioned statement is based on meaning. The imagery of Sarah Baartman, the drawings and cartoons, when she was but on display in freak-shows was meant to draw attention to her. Some with the intention to mock the people inspecting Sarah like the cartoon with the dog sniffing on one inspecting man, some to just draw attention to her ‘freakish’ appearance with exaggerated proportions of her buttocks. New images of Sarah Baartman in contemporary culture are made for different reasons. For example, Willie Bester’s statue of Sarah Baartman was made with the intent to raise awareness about the dehumanizing aspects of the colonial history of South Africa. (Buikema, 2009) The difficulty that arises with representation is that it is not about what the artist intended to say with the work because this intention might not come across. It is semiotics that gives us the tool to analyse the meaning of, for example, works of art. Semiotics is a theory of signs. It studies cultural sign processes, the relation between signifier and signified which is fixed for a certain time or period and place. The signifier is the form, whether it is language, a painting or a statue, and the signified is the mental concept that accompanies it. (Buikema, 2009) In the case of Sarah Baartman, the image of her is the signifier...
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