EXCLUSIVE: Saartjie Baartman : An archangel for black women
Venus vs Modernity, a production by poet Lebo Mashile, seeks to look into the life of Saartjie “Sara” Baartman.
The play that will be staged at Market Theatre in September, looks into the forces that acted on Saartjie Baartman’s life and how those very forces have gone to shape our understanding of the modern world, thus, resonating deeply with so many black women.
“It resonates so deeply because the forces that she was up against are the same forces that we as black women continue to be up against 200 years later,” said Mashile in an exclusive interview with Sunday Independent.
“She was at the mercy of colonialism, the slave trade, the machinery of fame, at the mercy of the entertainment industry, the sex trade, capitalism and the medical fraternity. So her body and her life were a battlefield against the forces that have been shaping the world for the last 200 years,” she said.
With this in mind, Mashile aims to mirror the issues that Saartjie Baartman faced to the ones contemporary black women continue to face, “showing that Saartjie is the archangel for black women’s representation in the modern world.
“I want to show that even though she was hugely oppressed, she made profoundly powerful choices over her life.
“At a time when people like her were decimated, erased from the fabric of society, here was a woman who used the power that she had to make extraordinary choices.
“I also want to show that so many forces intersect with her life.
“From fashion to fame to human zoos and human circuses, sex trade, colonialism, addiction, human trafficking, etc.
“Her body is the site of so many intersecting forces. I want to show that her story is still very relevant today.”
She also highlights how some people made direct references to Saartjie’s story during Caster Semenya’s IAAF ruling, “recognising that even though this issue is a centuries-old issue, how Saartjie’s body is very much alive and present in Caster’s story”, she said.
Mashile is known for work that speaks to society’s ills.
I’ve been working on a piece about the life of Saartjie Baartman for the past 3 years. It will be on at the Market Theatre in September. It’s called Venus vs. Modernity. Saartjie’s life is the lens through which very single black woman must pass to understand how we are seen. https://t.co/fciD94lVgR— Bessie’s Head (@lebomashile) May 4, 2019
She was first introduced to Saartjie’s story in her twenties - during a time when she was interrogating the idea of black female representation and body image, only for the story to return now in her adulthood when she experienced a lot of body shaming that had a tremendous effect on her emotionally and psychologically.
“But, also I am grateful because stories like that of Saartjie and so many other incredible works by black feminists and people who are passionate about body positivity and black female representation gave me a sense of selfconfidence and helped me understand that the forces that I was up against, the people who were attacking me and the media that was the platform for those attacks, were shaped by bigger forces than the individuals who were attacking me, hence, igniting the interest in creating Venus vs Modernity.
In her quest for authenticity, Mashile spent time researching various sources of material, including the movie Black Venus, the biography Hottentot Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks‘ play, Venus, The Return of Sara Baartman, a Zola Maseko movie, and Diana Ferris’s seminal poem on Saartjie’s return home, I’ve come to take you home.
“I think it is the perfect time to tell this story because the politics of the world has shifted.
“We find ourselves in an environment where a new wave of feminism has emerged. And our understanding of gender, of womanhood, of femininity, is central to those shifts.
“So I think this is the time when the world is ready. I could have done this story five or 10 years ago, but the narrative would have fallen flat.
“I am grateful that this piece is coming out now and I think that every sign is kinda pointing to it,“ she said.
Her vision was supported by the Centre for Less Good Idea, Design Indaba, where the play was staged last year and then formed a partnership at Windybrow Heritage House, and there presented the work last August.
“We are using song, dialogue, storytelling, poetry/spoken word, movement and visuals to this story,” Mashile said.
“I am excited about this work because it is entertaining, engaging, funny and heart-warming. To watch it is to be inside the story, and I love that about it.”