/ 23 October 2009

The Saartjie show MK II

It was inevitable. Like the Blessed Virgin, Madiba, Che and Campbell’s Soup, yet another icon of our time will end up as a placemat, a tea cosy on a rusty clothes rail, in a fong kong store or on a vodka bottle. Or in this case, as a T-shirt being promoted on Facebook under a site called ”Coloured Women Are Hot!”

So onse Saartjie Baartman is going mainstream. We’ve already had a T-shirt bearing her image — in particular the famous side profile where her butt resembles the Horn of Africa. Now the so-called ”African trademark” has been, er, trademarked.

This is an attempt to get coloured youngsters to be more proud of their heritage and to remember that, when Heritage Day comes around, they too have reason to celebrate where they come from. And that instead of getting pissed or spending all day washing their All Stars, or any of the other things coloureds do on public holidays, there is now an opportunity to educate the next generation on the history, and tragedies, of the community.

The story of this young woman has been told so often and in a style so lacking in imagination, it borders on cliché. Feminist academics churn out papers on Saartjie with titles like ”Disempowered to Consent” and ”Colonialism, Disjoint and Disjuncture”. With that kind of podiatrist language, no one would blame coloured youth who’d rather go stand on the corner than learn about Saartjie Baartman.

Is there really a need to revisit her boat trip to London and the circumstances that saw her end up in a leotard in Picadilly Circus shaking her booty at lascivious Englishmen with monocles? It’s worth remembering that Ms Baartman’s bum wasn’t that exceptional, as far as freaks went at the time.

When she arrived in London in 1810, the Victorian freak shows were in full swing. Although she was billed by her impresario as a great wonder from across the seas, a discerning ticket-holder could just as well go next door where he would find bearded ladies, Siamese twins, the Elephant Man and web-footed wonders.

Saartjie’s story is a tale of women’s liberation. This big-butted sister, whose name has become virtually synonymous with the term steatopygia, is a feminist icon. Sure, she met a sorry end in a pickling jar in a French surgeon’s cupboard. Sure, she got prodded and leered at by Englishmen obsessed with her padded posterior. Sure, she died broke, alone, alcoholic and syphilitic millions of miles away from home.

But what about her ”agency”, as fancy academics call it? Let it not be forgotten this was also a sister who refused to go home when the abolitionists went to trial to try to free her from her Piccadilly Circus showgirl life.

Saying she preferred her feather boa in London to her shackles back home, Ms Baartman largely chose her life. She eventually got baptised and was said to be seen swanning around northern England on Sundays in a carriage, balancing a parasol.

Lured by promises of more cash, she even willingly made the trip to France. There she willingly posed semi-nude for the French biologists and sketchers desperate to sneak a peek at her famous ”Hottentot apron”.

But this version — of a woman with her wits fully about her — does not tally with the Saartjie the politicians and the Gender Commission love to breast-beat over every year when Women’s Day comes around.

As we wait for the play and the inevitable Hollywood film, South Africans will soon be able to buy their very own limited edition Saartjie T-shirt, which we’re promised will be extended to ”a complete clothing range for the whole family”.

Presumably, this will also one day branch out into figurines, screen-savers and coffee mugs. I’m all for crass commercialisation if it’s going to get some kid interested in historical figures. What is tiresome is the very particular version of Saartjie’s life that constantly portrays her as a South African Kunta Kinte (the iconic slave character from the book, Roots).

Her exhibition in England pandered to racist views of the ”primitive” African’s sexuality, no doubt. But to say she went gentle into that good night, was a lamb to the slaughter, just wasn’t Saartjie. At least not entirely. And it wasn’t very coloured.