How the #SaartjieSelfie came to ‘just be’

The #SaartjieSelfie you see on the cover is a painting on cardboard in lipstick and eyeliner. The writing in the paint was completed with a ballpoint pen that had run out of ink; most of the text is from participants in the Chubby Vogue Divas exhibition at Constitution Hill earlier this month.  

It is my imagining of Sarah Baartman, taking a selfie with an iPhone in a mirror, while wearing a dress with the same pattern as #TheDress (in gold and white, naturally, because that was the colour of the dress.) This is the story of how that painting came about.

Sarah Baartman and I have nothing in common except a first name, initials and a country. A nickname, too: Saartjie, which I’ve hated ever since a colleague used it at an ad agency where I worked.  A few years ago, a friend called out “Saartjie Baartman!” as I bent over to pet a kitten, a taunt that flamed my ears with shame. Yeah I know. You don’t have to remind me that my arse is the size of a minor planet.

The part about the country is not strictly true. When Sarah was born in 1790 or so, the part of the world she called home was ruled, nominally, by the Dutch, and when she left in 1810, it was ruled by the English; the name “South Africa” would only appear on maps many decades later. 

When she died, on December 29 1815, Sarah had been making a living as a curiosity in Paris. The city would have been bitterly cold and damp. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were displayed in the Musee de l’Homme until 1974, the year I was born. Her remains were returned to the land of her birth in 2002 and buried on August 9, Women’s Day, of the same year. 

Over the years, Sarah Baartman’s story has been explored by artists, academics and activists. But the dominant images of her remain the two lithographs in Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères, between depictions of a mouflon (a wild sheep) and a langur (a primate). 

I have mentioned those few similarities between us. There is also one especially important difference. Sarah Baartman was black, and I am white, and heir to a culture that gleefully regarded her existence as proof of the superiority of whiteness, and denied her the possibility of dignity. We are divided by time and history and the terrible weight of symbolism — wrongs that cannot be righted, a litany of cruelties large and small — and these can never be bridged. 

And then there were the Chubby Vogue Divas. 

In June this year, I met Charmain Carrol. A Johannesburg-based photographer, she wanted help with an exhibition of plus-sized black women at Constitution Hill during Women’s Month. 

“With Chubby Vogue Divas I wanted to create a platform for fuller or chubby women to be celebrated,” she explained. “To feel like a diva for a day, where they get to feel like supermodels, wear makeup, and try on clothes that make them feel good!”

I gazed at her images of Nthabiseng and Xoliswa, Mpho and Nosisa, smiling as they flirted with the camera. Of Thembelihle Precious Mhlongo, who describes herself as “an ambitious, 21-year-old curvy lady, with thighs the size of the universe”. I thought back to all the selfies I’ve seen on Twitter and Instagram, and how so many young women choose to represent themselves. For the first time in history, it is possible not only for them to record their own image, but to do so instantly: to be both observer and observed, simultaneously, and to share that carefully controlled vision of themselves with the world. 

(The most accomplished exponent of the selfie is of course Kim Kardashian, who “broke the internet” when she alluded to a 70s image that traces its origins to Sarah Baartman. All things end up being connected, eventually.)

The outfit-in-mirror pose is one of the most popular. This is where the subject positions herself in front of a full-length mirror. The phone she holds almost invariably obscures part of her face. She does not make eye contact with the viewer of the image, because she is too busy focusing on capturing herself. 

And so the Chubby Vogue Divas and the selfies and my interest in Sarah Baartman coalesced into something of an obsession. I had a vivid vision of Sarah taking a selfie in front of a mirror, and I wanted to see what this would look like if I painted it in lipstick — that most intimately feminine of mediums, and one that will never be considered as anything other than a curiosity. So I did. 

In the work, she wears hoop earrings and her delicate features are highlighted with makeup. Her eyebrows are painted and she has manicured nails, but chooses not to wear a weave. She studies her image in the mirror, and her gaze meets her own. She likes what she sees. 

In the paint around her, I wrote my favourite quotations from the Chubby Vogue Divas. “I always rock my make and lipstick and walk with big confidence and pride,” from Nthabiseng Zuma. From Nokuphiwa Mthethwa: “I love myself as big and beautiful as I am and I know that I am more sexy than other thin ladies.” 

After writing in all of these words about confidence and beauty, I added a comment of my own: “Saying that I am beautiful does not make me beautiful,” I observed ruefully. I admire these women.

But I cannot believe what they say they believe.

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