There is something surreal about being caught up in a moment of history. Two weeks ago I was in Paris, witnessing the closing of a 180-year span of history.
My earth self was making a documentary on the repatriation of Saartjie Baartman’s remains.
My spirit self was reclaiming an ancestor, poking around a colonial burial ground deep in the recesses of the Musee de I’ Homme (Museum of Mankind), and watching the French whip themselves into frenzy at the prospect of being governed by a right-wing joker.
My first sighting of Baartman came just hours after disembarking at the circuitous Charles de Gaulle airport, from which we sped past Stade du France and straight to the Musee, which stands grandly in the skeletal shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Seven years of research, discussion and fascination with Baartman did not prepare me for the face-to-face meeting with her. Or rather with the disembodied bits and pieces deemed crucial for scientific research by the scientists auspiciously “entrusted” with her remains just hours after her death. And who wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter: making a cast of her body, dissecting it and preserving her brain and genitals.
Baartman’s skeleton reached no higher than my solar plexus, which would’ve made her no taller than 1,3m. The upright caste looked ghoulish and has trapped her face in a perpetual death mask, her arms sticking straight out at an awkward angle, and painted an odd brown. The bottle containing her brain seemed unremarkable, as did the bottle of grey matter that constitutes her genitals. The two French packers who’d patiently awaited our arrival got to work almost immediately, as did Jonathan Kovel and Mzukizi Mtshitsi, our cameraman and soundman.
The process was intricate, and involved a great deal of careful measuring and marking, to ensure that the precise shape of her skeleton and the bottles were cut out of the sheets of foam that would protect them from damage. The packers were employed by a company that has been dealing in the packaging of human remains for hundreds of years, and it showed. They took meticulous care, lifting her delicate skeleton off the stand on which it has been exhibited for decades, and gently laid her in the foam-lined box, ensuring that each bone was inserted carefully and didn’t snag the foam.
I was fascinated by the bottle containing her genetalia I wondered what treasures of scientific discovery they could have yielded, and bow George Cuvier felt the moment that he was able to examine her vagina at close range, without resistance from Baartman who had proved to be a hostile specimen during her stay at the Jardin des Plantes, where she was exhibited among a range of other exotic fauna and flora. The contents of the jar were unappealing; and my fascination put me on par with Cuvier and all the other learned men of French science, so I stopped looking.
I wandered down the rows of steel cupboards, occasionally spying. a skeleton skulking like a child sent to a comer, forgotten for centuries. My knees buckled when I came across a group of about 250 skeletons hanging in two neat. rows from an overhead beam. First in line was a skeleton of a man who was probably close to 2,1m tall, followed by the skeleton of what looked like a child. I later found out that the “giant” was French, and that the child was a “dwarf’. The yellowed bits of paper stuck to the sides of cabinets that stood floor to ceiling and were about 10m long listed the contents of these cupboards. They contained casts, skeletons, masks, skulls and other bits of indigenous people from every comer of the Earth.
As the packing of Baartman’s remains continued I wandered on, horrified by the voracity of French colonialism and scientific research. The museum authorities refused to allow us to film the collection, fearing reprisals and the prospect of endless demands of repatriation filtering back to France. I understood their reluctance, but was secretly infuriated that the world would miss out on what I believe would have made a fantastic tracking shot of France’s colonial shame.
The authorities’ discomfort at the request to film the “family” that Sarah would be leaving behind made sense. In Zola Maseko’s 1998 documentary The Life & Times of Sarah Baartman, Andre Langenay, director of the Musee, denied that Baartman’s bottled brains and genitals were contained in the collection. She was not only a powerful symbol of scientific racism, but clearly also had magical powers. Baartman could bring her genitals and brain back to life, and force the modern-day representatives of the men who dissected her into a shame-faced apology at being caught out in a very public lie. No one could, or would, identify where the myth of the missing brain and genitals originated, but everyone at the museum agreed that someone higher up had instructed them to stonewall, lie or evade the issue as to what happened to the bottle of what once contained a scientific gem.
Cuvier was not just any scientist. He was the best. The father of comparative anatomy, the chairperson of anatomy of animals at the Museum of Natural History, secretary of the Academie des Sciences, professor at the museum and the College de France. Cuvier first saw Baartman when his mentor and eventual archrival Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire exhibited her to a group of painters Very little is known of Baartman’s experience of Paris. No one can say for sure where she lived, if she had friends, what she took for menstrual cramps, what she thought of French food, or of the cold. I spent 10 days in Paris in the spring, and every day I felt chilled. Baartman was displayed naked or semi-clothed in the Jardin that today, along with the Museum of Natural History, is one of the many tourist sites in Paris, and still houses a menagerie and zoo filled with exotic animals.
My heart bled for the ostriches and kangaroos leaping around in a drenching rain and freezing temperatures. As I huddled further into my three layers of clothing I could only imagine Baartman’s misery in such hostile envi¬rons, with no warm clothes, sur¬rounded by men so obsessed with her vagina that they were constantly trying to persuade her to drop the re¬maining garments she wore.
The French seemed a bit bemused by the fuss we were malting over the repatriation. Le Pen and the ascendance of right-wing xenophobia and racism were uppermost in their minds. At night, in my hotel room, I watched television and witnessed the fervour of a French populace realising how they had squandered their demo¬cratic right to vote. Nearly 200 years ago the bourgeoisie abandoned Paris in haste at the onslaught of the revolution. In fleeing, they abandoned massive collections of prized exotic animals, plants and artefacts, much of which formed the basis of the Musee’s collection. Two hundred years later the natives, indigenes, Negroes and “others” they coveted so dearly are now being framed as the greatest threat to French safety and security by Le Pen.
The average French person seems mystified by the “sudden resurgence” of racism, and the ascendance of the right, making little connection between the two moments in history and the nationalist ravings of Le Pen. Ultimately, my week in Paris docu¬menting the return of Baartman has confirmed my faith in the existence and power of spirit. Baartman had an indominitable spirit. She cried out repeatedly to be taken home, and her cries have reverberated through the centuries, and over continents. Cuvier’s name appears on the base of the Eiffel tower, an avenue is named after him, and runs along the length of the Jardin de Plante, and intersects with an avenue named in honour of Saint-Hilaire. A fountain tinkles at the intersection where the two avenues meet, directly opposite the entrance to the Jardin.
Cuvier is buried in the famous Paris cemetery, Pere Lachaise, as is Jim Morrison, Sarah Bernhandt, Colette and other historic figures. Baartman’s remains lived in case No. 33 in the Musee, and later in the parts of the museum still dedicated to anthropology and research - which the millions of tourists never see. As Brigitte Mabandla, the Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, her staff, the delegation and my colleagues Kovel and Mtshitsi all boarded the plane that would fly Baartman back home, I lugged my backpack to the chauffeur-driven limousine that ferried me back into Paris, In the air-conditioned confines of a plush leather interior, I exhaled for the first time in 10 days and wept.
I wept for Baartman, I wept for every black woman degraded and humiliated by men obsessed by the secrets they carry between their legs. And I wept for every brown South African reduced, degraded and humiliated by being called “Hotnot” and “AmaBoesman”. I also wept tears of joy and gratitude because I had been chosen as a witness to a brief and victorious moment in history.
Sarah Baartman: Unearthing Heritage, Burying the Past is a panel discussion on the homecoming of Saartjie Baartman at the South African museum in Cape Town on May 18 from 2pm to 5pm. More info: Tel (021) 424 330 ext 2013.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.