Baartman off the shelf

A ceramist selling sculptures of Saartjie Baartman’s “somewhat unusual form” has appalled historians and women, who say the pieces are neither ethical nor dignified. As a result, three of the works, selling for R798 each, have been removed from display at The Space lifestyle boutique in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Baartman was a Khoisan woman in her 20s who, in 1810, was paraded as an object of sexual exoticism in Europe. She died in Paris a few years later and it was regarded as a triumph over colonialism when her remains were returned to South Africa for burial in the Eastern Cape in 2002.

Marina Walsh, a Johannesburg-based ceramist, is currently producing white clay sculptures of Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus”. However, shoppers at The Space were apparently not amused and complained to the store management.

Walsh said she would collect the sculptures from The Space this week. She defended her work, saying she had a “mould and can make more”.

“I did realise that the figurine might generate discussion. My intention was to create a simple ornament that would be nice to have and hold. I am intrigued by the beauty of the human form in all its variations,” said Walsh.

“Saartjie was made a commercial spectacle for people to come and view her,” said Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie of the University of the Western Cape’s history department. “Again she is being sold. For her to be exposed in this manner shows no context of her life. The commercialisation of Saartjie is not a good idea. It again reduces her to a spectacle.

“What is one going to achieve by having something like this in one’s house? Saartjie is such a contested figure and there is so much emotion attached to her. Her body was on display in the early years of the 20th century. People came to gawk at her.”

Dhupelia-Mesthrie said the Baartman figure was “really about colonialism and how indigenous people were being taken to Europe and put on display to laugh at as something from Africa”.

Walsh said that during her research she discovered “a great admiration for Saartjie”.

“The Victorian fashion at the time showed women wearing dresses with hoops that emphasised and emulated their profile. I merely wish to make people look at the shape of her [Baartman’s] body and see the unconventional beauty in it,” said Walsh.

Colleen Eitzen, manager of The Space’s six stores across the country, said the Baartman sculptures were perhaps not done “tastefully”. But she said it also seemed like a “celebration of somebody who suffered a great deal”.

“We need to ask whether the artist meant to undermine [Baartman] or celebrate her,” said Eitzen.

She said The Space did not inhibit the local designers whose work it sells on consignment in each store. Eitzen said they removed the sculptures because “we are not the kind of shop that wants to upset people”.

Internet discussion flared up this week after journalist Gail Smith posted photos of Walsh’s ornaments on Facebook. Well-known poet Lebogang Mashile commented online: “It is totally inappropriate and disgusting. Sies. I am not spending my money there. This decision should bite them in the ass and pocket.”

Walsh said that she was saddened and pointed out that the Johannesburg Development Agency had commissioned her to produce a tribute sculpture of ANC legends Walter and Albertina Sisulu. It stands between Market and Commissioner streets in Newtown, Johannesburg.

“Her body shape and that of the Hottentots is uniquely South African, in the same way that the Ndebele women have elongated necks or Zulu women wear their ceremonial hats. It forms part of our unique iconography and these shapes also form part of my experience.”

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