Actress protests objectification of black women’s bodies

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Women’s bodies have long been contested spaces – even battlegrounds – mostly because of its misrepresentation and exhibition for male pleasure.

In recent months, North American pop culture figures like reality TV series star Kim Kardashian and singer Nicki Minaj paraded their bums in publicity-hungry campaigns.

While this is their choice, following a pop culture norm that uses sexuality to sell products or personas, countless other women have spoken against this.

In Cape Town, a young actress is channelling Saartjie Baartman on stage to dissect the way in which bodies of women of colousr remains objectified.

Actress Thola Antamu, 25, is challenging the provocative self-imposed objectification of Kardashian and Minaj with her play, ‘Exhibit-S, Ode to Saartjie Baartman by a black South African woman’.

Actress Thola Antamu imagines what a young Saartjie Baartman must have endured in a hostile, ridiculing Europe 200 years ago. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Actress Thola Antamu imagines what a young Saartjie Baartman must have endured in a hostile, ridiculing Europe 200 years ago. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

She started performing the show at a range of venues across the city in September. A theatre run follows this month, with performances scheduled in Johannesburg next month.

At the centre of her narrative is the reality of Baartman’s objectification in England and France. Baartman was a Khoi Khoi woman reportedly born in 1879 in the Cape.

Actress Thola Antamu dressed as Saartjie Baartman who was prodded and sexualised in Europe because of her large breasts and bum. Picture Supplied

Actress Thola Antamu dressed as Saartjie Baartman who was prodded and sexualised in Europe because of her large breasts and bum. Picture Supplied

She was 20 when transported on a boat to England and later moved to France. In both countries, her body was ridiculed for its shape and turned into a touring freak show.

Baartman’s large breasts and bum was curiously prodded until she died at 24.

Archival research published online inform that she was the centrepiece of 225 shows at Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London.

Her naked body was “led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered”.

“People paid one shilling to gawk at her, where she was depicted as a wild animal in a cage, dancing for her keeper. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman.”

She was also the subject of so-called scientific research projects. In France, her body was the subject of The Hottentot Venus, a comic opera, filled with racial prejudice and misperceptions that Europeans perpetuated about aboriginal people.

When she died, her body was dissected and displayed at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in France.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela requested for her remains to be returned to South Africa. Her remains were finally returned to her homeland where a burial ceremony was held for her on Women’s Day, August 9 2002.

Antamu in her play tries to imagine what Baartman must have felt like. She cushions up bum to make it look bigger. She struggles with the idea of being objectified.

“It is so difficult to become that character. There were these foreign men who thought she was an African freak,” says Antamu.

“Saartjie was taken to a place where she was put on display for being wild, exotic and African. This story gets to me. This young girl was paraded, poked, prodded and smelt.

“In her death, she was boiled and cast. She had everything taken away from her. It’s a terrifying image.”

She also presents her own voice on stage, as a young black South African woman, talking about a “suffering that is still happening to all women”.

“Society doesn’t allow us to celebrate our bodies. We live in a patriarchal society where a woman is a sex object or mother. Women today are still trapped in their bodies, just like Saartjie was,” says Antamu.

“We should own our bodies. That’s a discussion that I want to open with this piece.”

While researching Baartman, she also has grappled with contemporary portrayals of black women’s bodies.

“I’ve found that black women are often represented as semi-nude, with big breasts or a big bum. A black woman’s body is something that people still see as foreign, wild, exotic and sexual,” says Antamu.

“There should be a movement to making women’s bodies beautiful and celebrated without being sexual. I’m telling this story because 200 years this was happening and it is still happening now. Two hundred years is a long time and it should change.

“I want every woman of colour to look in the mirror and say ‘I am beautiful in my body, no matter the size, shape or colour’. I didn’t have that when I was a girl. I had nobody like that to look up to.”

Antamu cautions that she did not set out to make a theatre-piece that “you will enjoy”. “It will make you think. That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to preach to anyone. I want you to take something home and read, talk, debate and question,” she says.

A discussion unfolds after each performance.

“It’s incredible what people will say to you when given the chance. I’ve been asked a few times how I feel about the pop culture and hip-hop culture of bum implants,” she says.

“People also generally don’t know that much about Saartjie, so they ask me about her history and what happened to her.”

She adds: “I would hate to make people feel uncomfortable, especially people of colour, because we have been made to feel uncomfortable so often… There is an awareness that needs to happen though.

“It’s an awareness of the fact that women of colour are still struggling. In Cape Town, I feel that we forget that.”

Antamu says through dialogue after the show, she has found that “women of colour want to have this conversation and have started that process”.

“They feel that they don’t want to represent themselves as exotic because they are black. They just want to be women who are beautiful,” she says.

‘Exhibit-S, Ode to Saartjie Baartman by a black South African woman’ runs at Alexander Upstairs theatre on Strand Street from December 15 to 17 at 7pm. Enquiries 021-300-1652.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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