The legacy of Sarah Baartman focus of symposium

Publication Date

In the early 19th century, a young, indigenous Khoisan slave named Sarah Baartman was taken from South Africa and shipped to Europe with the promise she could make money by allowing foreigners to gawk at her naked body.

Dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman became a freak show attraction, paraded at human zoos, circus sideshows, museums and other public places.

White Europeans were fascinated by her large black buttocks, breasts and genitalia. Often, she was molested.

Eventually forced into prostitution, Baartman died in Paris after an infection. She was 25.

Scientists dissected her body, and her brain, genitalia and skeleton were displayed at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1976. After a protracted legal battle with French authorities, her remains were finally returned to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

Today, Baartman has become a symbol of racial and gender politics, and a number of South African centers for women survivors of abuse are named after her.

Baartman’s complex story is the focus a two-day symposium beginning Friday, April 7, at College Park Hall.

The symposium will feature student research focusing on the topics of blackness, feminism, gender roles, performance and the visual arts, from the colonial period to current times.

The presentations cover literature ranging from Frantz Fanon to Toni Morrison, and research on the notions of authority and agency in the spectacles and performances of Baartman, Josephine Baker, Grace Jones, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé.

The event will also feature digital narratives created by students, short films, an open forum discussion on Baartman and the Black Lives Matter movement, and an African dance performance by the Union Afro Dance Club.

The keynote speaker is Janell Hobson, associate professor and graduate director of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of “Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture,” and “Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.”

“The idea for the symposium came from the connections that students made in the Sophomore Research Seminar that I taught this year and last year, ‘Gender Stereotypes and Immigration in France,’ regarding blackness, feminism and exoticism in the French and North-American contexts,” said Claire Mouflard, visiting assistant professor in Modern Languages and Literature.

Mouflard and Deidre Hill Butler, associate professor of sociology, organized the event.

The symposium is part of a larger curriculum at Union, including Butler's class, “Sociology of Black Women's Culture,” which focuses on the representations and political activism of black women historically and in contemporary spaces.

“Deidre and I believe that this symposium is significant as it brings together students from different fields (the sciences, arts and sciences, social sciences, and the humanities), while giving a voice to Sarah Baartman, a woman whose body, identity and image were exploited before and after her death,” Mouflard said.

The symposium is free and open to the campus community and the public.

Supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant as part of the "Our Shared Humanities" college-wide initiative, the symposium is sponsored by the Departments of Modern Languages, Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies, African Students Association and Black Students Union.

Friday, April 7
6 to 9 p.m., Karp 105
Film, “Venus Noire” by Abdellatif Kechiche

Saturday, April 8
College Park Hall

8:30 to 9 a.m.: Welcome by Claire Mouflard and Deidre Hill Butler

9 to 10:30 a.m.: Student Research Panel: “Sarah Baartman’s Story.” Panel moderator: Professor Cheikh Ndiaye, Modern Languages and Literatures.

• Meredith Westover ’18, “Breaking the Connection to Savagery”
• Samuel Lartey ’18, “The Artificial Construction of the Black Woman: Following Sarah Baartman’s Story”
• Niuniu Zhang ’19, “Racism in African American Literature and French Caribbean Literature Around the 1960s”
• Katherine Treacy ’18, “Sarah Baartman, Josephine Baker, and the Spectacle of Exoticism in France”

10:30 to 11 a.m.: Documentary: “Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man's World.”

11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Student Research Panel: “Sarah Baartman’s Legacy.” Panel moderator: Professor Claire Mouflard

• Sophie Shapiro ’19, “Black Beauty: From Sarah Baartman to Beyoncé”
• Elsa Farooq ’18, “The Spectacle of the Black Woman: From Sarah Baartman to Kim Kardashian”
• Yesenia Negron ’20, “The Evolving Idea of Beauty in the Black Community”
• Claire Mouflard “Black Girls and Girl Gangs in France: Media Coverage and Film Representations”

1 to 2 p.m.: Keynote speaker: Janell Hobson, followed by Q&A moderated by Deidre Hill Butler

2:15 p.m.: “Black Women Appreciation,” a short film by Tru Krystal Edwards ‘17

2:30 to 3:30 p.m.: Open forum discussion on Sarah Baartman’s Legacy and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Moderator: Deidre Hill Butler

3:30 to 4 p.m.: Documentary: “You Can Touch My Hair”

4 to 4:30 p.m.: Dance performance, Union College Afro Dance Club