Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Black Venus (2010)

Black Venus (Vénus noire) in its naked truth is a painfully disturbing portrayal of the human condition. It is also a powerful declaration of human rights.

The movie is based on the life of Sarah Baartman (also Bartmann). It was directed by Abdellatif Kechich (b. 1960 Tunis) and written by him with Ghalya Laroix. It is not only what approaches a historical documentary but also very contemporary as it contains elements so sadly familiar to many modern immigrants, strangers, aliens and other foreigners who are different in today's Europe, post-colonial England and France included.

Wikipedia tells:  "Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815) was the earliest and most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name “The Hottentot Venus”.

Baartman's physique, characterised by large breasts and steatopygous buttocks, though common among the Khoikhoi was rare in Europe. There it aroused widespread public fascination and fed curiosity about the sexuality of non-European races.

Racism skewed perceptions of Baartman during her life and allowed her remains to become a museum display after her death. She is now seen as a potent symbol of the denigration and de-humanization of African peoples and their cultures during the colonial period." wikipedia

The Night
Sarah Baartman experienced the "interest" of white Europeans in early 19th century England and France. She was an orphan taken with the dream of "from rag to riches" from her native South Africa to London by her master, Dutch farmer Caezar. 1814 she is taken to Paris where her "career" degenerated from freak shows to French saloons and finally to alcohol and prostitution. At only 29 years Sarah became fatally ill and died abandoned alone. Her body was dissected by curious scientists and her remains were later displayed to the public in Muséum d'histoire naturelle, Paris.

Yahima Torres as Hottentot Venus
Image from Cranes are flying blog discussing the movie

The camera work focuses intensively on the face of Sarah who is acted with such great dignity by  Yahima Torres. The effect of following with such intensity her facial expressions - or lack of them - leads to a complete reversal of the concepts "primitive" and "civilized" in the minds of the viewers.

This powerful movie contains cruel naked debauchery and hypocritical attitudes of those judging others. All is exposed by director Adbellatif Kechich's cinematic skills in a truly painful manner - painful, because so truthful. We in the audience take part in the voyeurism and violation of her humanity by watching the movie - we know it but cannot stop looking and our basic instincts demand the right to do what we want to do regardless of the prise ... to others, that is.

It's a man's world!
Andre Jacobs as slave master Caezar 

The Poem
Image wikimedia

Sarah's earthly remains have been reburied in Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The signboard showing the location of the tomb includes a poem dedicated to her by Diana Ferrus.

Diana Ferrus.
University of Western Cape.
Photo uwm Afrikaans
I have come to take you home
home, remember the veld?
The lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
Your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-song
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away:
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white:
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you.

Poem copyright Diana Ferrus

The light
Black Venus is modern commentary to the words in the Letter to the Ephesians - who were not Sunday school children, either. These are not empty words - they are part of a divine message that eventually changed South Africa. This happened when the words reached also the oppressed and not only those in power. Ask, for example, Bishop Desmund Tutu or the Namibians.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:8-20 NIV

Image from Talk to Aletta blog

Some studies of Sarah and her world

Cuvier, Georges, (1817). Mémoires du Muséum d'histoire naturelle: Extrait d'observations faites sur le cadavre d'une femme connue á Paris et á Londres sous le nomme de Vénus Hottentotte. Muséum d'histoire naturelle.

Holmes, Rachel, (2006). The Hottentot Venus. Bloomsbury, Random House.

Koster, Marian and Lisa Leimar Price, (2008). Rwandan female genital modification: Elongation of the Labia minora and the use of botanical species. In: Culture, Health and Society, 10(2): 191-204.

Perez, Guillermo Martinez and Harriet Namulondo, (2011). Elongation of Labia minora in Uganda: including Baganda men in a risk reduction education programme In: Culture, Health and Society, 13(1): 45-57.

Praise, Clifton and Scully, Pamela, (2009). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: a ghost story and a biography. Princeton University Press.

Qureshi, Sadiah, (2011). Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. University of Chicago Press.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, (1999). Black Venus; Sexualized savages, Primal Fears and Primitive Narratives in French. Durham: Duke University Press.

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