Colonial hangover

2010-01-17 08:27

By Gail Smith

LAST week I dragged two

girlfriends to The Space, a trendy clothing emporium in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

We were not there to shop. We were there to do a reality check: was a replica of

Sarah Baartman really on sale for R798?

My friends reacted with abject horror and disbelief.

The Space’s decision to put Baartman back on sale reeks of

monumental ignorance and gross insensitivity to what she symbolises.

Baartman is a symbol of colonial arrogance and cruelty masked under

the guise of science.

She represents a colonial obsession with our butts. She symbolises

the hurtful and degrading ­expectation of licentiousness that was projected onto

black women during colonialism. And which continues today.

Having worked on two films about Baartman, people often ask if I

can confirm that she was a prostitute.

I am asked to confirm that she was the licentious, sexually

indiscriminate stereotype of African femininity so embedded in the western


I am expected to affirm a stereotype that degrades the essence of

my being.

Oageng Tsatsi, a publicist for Jacana publishers, found herself in

this invidious position recently when she circulated a cartoon of Julius

Malema’s face superimposed over Baartman’s body in an email with the subject

line: “Is this funny?”

The image had been on the website of the satirical t-shirt company,

Laugh it Off.

Tsatsi was suspended – and eventually fired – for her discomfort.

Her inability to see “the joke” ultimately cost her her job.

Many black women have heart- wrenching stories of humiliation and

hurt associated with their bums. Or have at some time in their lives been

assumed to be a prostitute.

Western popular culture routinely capitalises on the familiar

assumption that black girls can be had by anyone and everyone.

It is this expectation that renders credible a scene in The Last

King of Scotland, the film about Idi Amin’s relationship with Dr Nicholas

Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor in Uganda.

Shortly after arriving in Uganda, Garrigan – played by James McAvoy

– strikes up a conversation with a young Ugandan woman on a bus. A few scenes

later the two are shown having wild sex. The film shamelessly exploits the

racist stereotype of the licentious and sexually undiscerning African woman.

Because of powerful interventions by black and African feminists,

big-bottomed girls are reclaiming their bodies.

They understand that their own self-hatred and the mockery their

bums solicit spring from the same root: Sarah Baartman.

Young black women are increasingly challenging the racist

stereotyping of black women that began with colonialism and continues today, by

celebrating their African Trade Marks. They are renaming and reclaiming those

ATMs: the big butts that for centuries marked black women as sexually available.

As with the Baartman/Malema cartoon, The Space’s decision to sell

the statuettes speaks to gross insensitivity and monumental ignorance of what

Baartman represents to black women and progressive white people.

It speaks to the fact that while we may have had a truth and

reconciliation commission to deal with apartheid, we have yet to have a TRC on


Seeing Sarah Baartman on sale in a trendy high-end clothing store

indicates that the same old racist ideologies – of the oversexualised black body

available to anyone for a price – are still at work in South Africa in 2010.

That the colonial appetite for the exotic, erotic, big-butted black woman that

greeted Baartman in the 1800s is alive today.

And it can be satisfied by forking out R798.

It speaks to the misguided perception that everything is ayoba now

and we can just laugh it off.

It’s not.

And we’re not laughing.

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