Beyond Booty: Covering Sarah Baartman and Other Tales


Axis 102

September 25 – October 31, 2010
Axis Gallery, in association with submerged art, USA

In her new body of work, Senzeni Marasela uses needlework to make pointed connections between living memory within her own family and the scandalous history of Sarah Baartman—the subject of many books. 

Sarah Baartman was a former slave from Cape Town who toured England, Ireland and Paris as “The Hottentot Venus,” drawing audiences fascinated by her “exotic race’s steatopygia” (enlarged buttocks)—controversial issues of race, voyeurism, and desire that still resonate today. 

When Sarah died in Paris, in 1815, aged 26, Napoleon’s physician published her autopsy, and her bottled genitals and brain were displayed in the Musée de l’Homme, alongside examples of African art, until 1974. At the request of Nelson Mandela, Sarah’s remains were returned in 2002 and she was ceremonially laid to rest in South Africa. 

In addressing Sarah’s history, Marasela considers her own mother’s physical abuse and terror of the big city as a site of racism and segregation, and her own challenges as a mother working in the city today. As a child, Marasela watched her mother find refuge in needlework, always using red thread, as if to suture the secret wounds that psychologically inhibited her from mothering. Marasela’s embroidered cloths and servant’s dresses needle painful truths and memories to the surface, yet they read as caring gestures that provide cover and redress, and hold the hope of healing histories written in blood. They also prick the collective conscience, because the audience is always implicated.