Sara Baartman became popularly known as the “Hottentot Venus” throughout Europe in the 19th century.
Many black women have been exposing her story, drawing connections between her experiences and their own, as well as identifying her by a different name–Saartjie.
Jessica Solomon, along with other founding artists, formed The Saartjie Project, a Washington D.C. based performance collective to honor Saartjie’s experience.
In this interview, Jessica explains Saartjie’s history, why she started the collective, the attention it has received and why Saartjie’s story is so significant and relevant to black women today.
What is the Saartjie Project?
Wow. I always get a little stuck when asked this question because there are so many layers!
We are a tribe of creative women willing to stretch our own boundaries and those imposed on us.
Our mission is to explore the intersections of race, gender and power through the voices and bodies of black women. We do this in the form of ensemble theatre, producing and developing work by black women through collaborative processes. We are committed to working together consistently to develop a distinctive body of work and practices reflective of who we are.
We are black women poets, singers, performance artists, visual artists and dancers who gather to create an unconventional and dynamic tribute to the symbolism, struggle and most importantly the humanity of our namesake, Saartjie (Sara) Baartman. Saartjie Baartman (pronounced Sar-key) was a South African woman taken from her homeland and crudely displayed in Europe from 1810 – 1815. She was given the show name “Hottentot Venus” and dressed in feathers and sheer clothing to “enhance” her pronounced physical features, most notably her buttocks, that were deemed hyper-sexual and exotic.
Upon her death, her body was dissected and publicly displayed in a museum in Paris until 1974. After much international political discourse over where Saartjie Baartman belonged, her remains were flown back to her homeland in May 2002 and laid to rest almost 200 years after she was taken to Europe.
Why did you decide to start this project? Did you have any personal experiences that inspired you to work on the Saartjie Project?
I am forever grateful to the Sister Circle, I have been nourished by these sometimes structured, sometimes impromptu gatherings of women. Experiencing sisterhood, challenging my perceptions and assumptions, serving, creating and just being there has definitely shaped me. I conceptualized The Saartjie Project in ’07 after a Sister Circle celebrating the anniversary of Saartjie Baartman’s final homecoming to South Africa.
I was an African American Studies major in undergrad so I knew about Saartjie. I knew about her like I knew about Santa Clause or Tony the Tiger or some other fictional character you may find in a poorly written children’s story. Before the Sister Circle, her life and legacy wasn’t mine. Sure her story was tragic, but I couldn’t–more like didn’t–draw a connection to me. Being in a room with women who had also written poems, sung songs and shared stories about what it meant to be in a black female body and learning about Saartjie the WOMAN not the mascot/icon/character touched me in a real way.
Later that night I began fiercely writing what would be a rough, rough, rough blueprint for the project. As an artist I wanted to share my a-ha moment on stage and create a-ha moments for audiences.
What do you think is so significant about this project for black women today? What connections do you draw between her experiences and those of black women today?
I think its several things. Just the idea of having 10 black women on stage is a statement in itself. We create artcollaboratively, taking everyone’s perspective, ideas and reservations into consideration. We all put in work. Our process to create is just as important as the art itself. We definitely tell stories about the contemporary black woman experience and Saartjie’s life. We let our audiences connect the dots, but they are there…big and bright.
The presumed accessibility of our bodies, the commodification of our body parts, most notably the booty and the exoticism of women of color has happened in the 18th and 19th century and in 2009. Google Caster Semenya if you don’t believe me.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I also think The Saartjie Project is significant to non-blacks and/or men as well. At our last performance in the ’09 Capital Fringe Festival we asked the audience to shout out words that came to mind about the production. An older white man yelled, “Universal!” I agree.
Why do you think it is so important to remember Saartjie and her story? Saartjie reminds us that there is a deep history embedded in the black female body. What do you want your audience to take away from the Saartjie Project?
I want people to see themselves on stage…the good, bad and ugly. I want people to get a refresher on why black women are so amazing. I want people to leave and tell someone about Saartjie Baartman.
On your website you mentioned that the Saartijie project allowed healing through art. What is it about art, specifically the performing arts, that you think provides healing?
We create space for healing through art–for both the actor and spectator. The act of creating and performing a scene or song or poem based on your truth is liberating.
To have your story told on stage is validating. Just like the Sister Circle, we seek to challenge and support.
Finally, what does Living Unchained mean to you?
“Living Unchained” feels like my favorite Audre Lorde quote, “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The Saartjie Project will be performing “Deconstructing the Myth of the Booty” in Baltimore, MD at The Strand Theatre 1/16 & 1/17, Washington DC, at the DC Arts Center 2/12 & 2/13, and The Corner Store 2/27 (reception to follow).
Visit www.thesaartjieproject.org after 1/1 to purchase tickets.
Jessica is interested in learning from other black women ensemble theatre companies and artist collectives. Feel free to reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, you may be interested in Hottentot Venus: A Novel, by Barbara Chase Riboud.