News Release: Arts and Humanities, Events

Feb. 4,  2009

Hottentot Venus: Biography Seeks to Document Little Known Life Behind Historic Icon

The Hottentot Venus, an exotic "paradoxical freak of race and sexuality," was the celebrity of her day. Imported from Africa and often displayed in a cage, she drew gawkers by the thousands across England and France. Her well-documented legacy shaped cultural views on women, sex and race, but left in the icon's shadow is the life of the woman who became her. 

Baartman, as the Hottentot Venus, was displayed in England and France from 1810 to 1815. Even after her death in Paris in 1816, her remains were an exhibit in a Paris museum well in to the 20th century.

While much has been written, theorized and studied about the Hottentot Venus, relatively little is known about Sara Baartman, the real woman behind the caricature. In a groundbreaking new book, "Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography," Emory faculty members and spouses Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully piece together the elusive evidence and clues that can be found about the life of Baartman before she became the iconic Hottentot.

In the process they expand the notion "of what a biography can be," says Scully, associate professor of women’s studies and African studies.

"Conventional biographies have been based on written records, diaries, letters and such, which essentially limits the biography to the lives lived by the privileged. We wanted to push the boundaries of what you could do with a biography, and document the life of someone who had been marginalized by society.”

"The irony is, you can write a biography for the Hottentot Venus, but it is much more difficult to write the biography of the real person," says Scully.

"It was very labor intensive research," says Crais, professor of history. The work took them into the dustiest corners of archival stacks in London, Manchester, Paris and South Africa examining shipping logs, newspapers, tax records, court documents, census data and the like. The hunt to find facts and evidence to illuminate the life of their subject led them to describe their work as a "ghost story" as well as a biography.

"There was not the cache of documents you usually have to work with when you are working on a biography," Crais says. "We had to employ a variety of tactics, multiple ways of approach to gather and analyze information." By so doing, and by taking Sara Baartman’s life seriously as a subject of historical investigation, the authors were able to find new information and correct some errors. For instance, they discovered she was much older – nearly 30, not early 20s – when she left South Africa and headed to England.

With the fall of apartheid in the 1990s, Baartman resurfaced again as a deeply symbolic icon of the indigenous peoples movement whose life represented millions of disenfranchised Africans, says Scully. Demands for the return of her remains to South Africa were finally answered in 2002, and Baartman was buried in her homeland.

As a crossover academic trade publication, the book has received a good deal of buzz both within the academy and beyond since its publication at the end of 2008, including a rare starred review in Publisher's Weekly. Crais and Scully also were recently consulted by the producers of Abdel Kechiche’s forthcoming film about the Hottentot Venus.

Book Signing

Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully will discuss and sign their new book "Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography," published by Princeton University Press (2008), at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 5 in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall, level 3. Books will be available for sale at the event.


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