She was Saartjie: Jessica Solomon Shares The Saartjie Project Thursday 10 December, 2009

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 […]

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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 jessica@thesaartjieproject.org.

Also, you may be interested in Hottentot Venus: A Novel, by Barbara Chase Riboud.

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3 Comments

  • Reece says:

    Amazing interview, Jess!!

  • Deela Khan says:

    IN THE BELLY OF AN IRON BIRD, SHE COMES FLYING
    For Saartjie Baartman
    Died 1 January 1816
    Born in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution)

    From the ancestral mountains,
    across streams, rivers, koppies and rocks,
    across the mangled vegetation of territory
    bloodied and dislocated by warfare,
    across the Gamtoosvallei, valley of your conception,
    your birth, your years of play and wonder,
    your young motherhood, widowhood, your wells of grief,
    your deaths, stillbirths and losses,
    from the inconsolable hollow of weeping and explosions of laughter,
    you came galloping, running, striding toward the Cape with its rumours of good
    hope, its towering mountains, its sky clouded with gulls, its sea fecund with fish.

    Amidst the river of stars sailed the moon
    preening its amber-gold fullness at the hour of your arrival.
    Amidst the fires and songs, the odour of herbs and thundering drums,
    the spirits of the caves and ravines and canyons echoed your presence.
    You had arrived. Away from your arrowed memories of warriors falling, of speared bulleted bodies falling, close to the mountain with its aloes and proteas and buchu and khaki-bos, you had come to stay. But stay, you could not
    our ancestral wanderer.

    Your seduction began with the arrival of a big ship in the harbour.
    You felt the eyes of the brothers on your body.
    They flooded your head with images of you on the ship.
    They whispered promises of the ship’s doctor
    chaperoning you to London where the streets were paved with gold.
    They sold images of you welcomed as Venus, voluptuous queen of love,
    every inch of your body cloaked in a mystique
    northern women cannot dream to possess.
    They captured your imagination with dreams
    of music and song, palatial houses and finery.

    On the wounded day you bought their dream,
    Saartjie, you boarded the ship and went sailing
    towards the unfamiliar jeweled mountains of the north.
    Sailing away from the harbour with its mountains, its cliffs,
    Its gulls, its seals, its raging sea and kindred spirits,
    Your eyes wrapped around so much beauty,
    stored it in your heart for moments of great longing.

    You discovered their lies on the high seas.
    Where were your quarters?
    Where did you sleep?
    You shouted out loud, they could not hear you.
    You talked to the wind, the waves, the stars and the healing
    moon who understood tongues as no humans could.
    You screamed out your bondage
    in these nights of affliction you were forced to ride.
    You rode fears, breakers, bodies as you sailed to the strange Jerusalem,
    With its strange mountains and strange tongues.

    Towards London you strode in the Age of Reason
    Leaving behind your ship of tears, heartbreak and humiliation.
    You came striding into the city where houses were palaces,
    rocks were diamonds, kerb stones, slabs of gold.
    You cursed the men who whispered
    those lies with no ears to hear you.
    Only the language of needle-and-bottle was understood
    by the good doctor; anodynes to erase words, rid bodies of pain.

    Your baptism of fire and pain under grey London skies had begun.
    The sun hid its face when first you lost your clothes
    as you did your song and dance sequence under feathers,
    in cages with or without animals, in bars, on campuses,
    on soapbox stages, in Piccadilly, in the streets of London.

    Civilized English folk came rushing to view the freak.
    Men and women and dogs and lovers and children poked your
    body with alarmed fingers, with sticks.
    They gawked, they laughed, they talked.
    Their faces, their horrible voices, their eyes
    burned into your anatomy like flames and made you scream.
    This was not the dream you were promised.
    The great cavern of loneliness was starting to envelope you-
    you were entering that sacred ground that animals
    retreated to in the absence of compassion.

    Four years in London allowed you to learn the peculiar tongue
    spoken around you, but understand, you could not, these peculiar
    beings who controlled the destinies of those they saw as lesser beings.
    Abolitionists fought to free you from your bonds of shame and torture.
    But crooked custodians of justice proved you were not coerced,
    You prospered they argued, you loved your work!
    But soon you were sold to the French.
    To new masters you were sent sailing to France,
    hoping you were sailing home,
    hoping they were setting you free,
    but you landed in a circus where caged beasts shared your misery.
    Like circus animals you were taught a routine.
    Stripped to the skin,
    to the music you had to dance, dance, dance
    and if you could dance no more, you were beaten with a stick.
    If you resisted, screamed, refused to sing, you were whipped.

    The mystery of your body, with its generous contours
    Captured the imaginations of European scientists,
    doctors, artists and men from all walks of life.
    It was the allure of the exotic that drove them to want you,
    To want to know you,
    To break your body as though you’d never been.

    And when illness racked your body in your lonely shelter
    in the land of strange spirits, you hauled from your heart the stored
    images of your kin, of Table Mountain, of the Gamtoos Valley.

    When Death entered with a handless knock that shattered
    your panes and lifted your covers,
    when she entered with the soundless rustle of her robes, you welcomed her
    and your accompanying ancestors but said you could not leave your body there.
    You did not trust the Baron Georges Cuvier.
    Honouring your wish Death and your ancestors left you to guard
    your body in the land of strangers
    till the hour of your return.

    Two portraits of you in the nude decorate the walls of the Louvre.
    Cuvier craved an exhibit, a Hottentot Venus for the Musee de l’Homme.
    Dead as you were, to them, you were still a freak,
    an anthropological curiosity.
    Of you he made a mould, he dissected you,
    preserved your brain, skeleton and genitalia for posterity.

    In the womb of that tomb filled with silent bones,
    You remained for 186 years
    still shouting, howling, screaming your great yearning to go home.

    The hour of your return has dawned in the Age of Aquarius.
    In the belly of an iron bird you come flying,
    across Europe, across Africa, towards the southern tip.
    Above banks of clouds, hailstorms, skyscrapers, seas,
    rivers, mountain ranges and rift-valleys
    You come flying
    You come flying home.
    Deela Khan
    Cape Town, South Africa

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