The active memory of Lebo Mashile’s ‘Venus vs Modernity’

Though Sara Baartman has been represented across many platforms, her subjectivity remains mostly silenced. Now a poet and singer breathe life into our ancestor on stage.

Lebo Mashile’s Venus vs Modernity plays on the notion that memory is active. The poet’s first full-length play centres on the story of Sara Baartman as a reference point for the representation of black women in modern society. 

A Khoi woman, Baartman under the name Hottentot Venus was part of a 19th century Europe freak show and was displayed in human zoos. When she died, her body was dissected and displayed in jars at the Museum of Man in Paris.  

To remember Baartman as the “grand ancestor” for black women who are othered is to contemplate the effects of slavery, colonialism, patriarchy and the workings of feminism, sexuality and the way the black female body is made exotic in the present day. 

Staging the work at this time – with the mounting femicide statistics, coupled with the resistance of women outing their rapists – extends the conversation to murky areas that connect the history of rape in South Africa to the history of slavery, colonialism and race science. The play, too, cannot be separated from Caster Semenya’s case and her exclusion by the International Association of Athletics Federations. 

Creative imaginings

Venus vs Modernity comes in the wake of a number of art works that have used the Sara Baartman story for activism and social commentary. Nelisiwe Xaba’s They Look at Me responds to the exoticisation of her body as a black female dancer. Poet and theatre maker Napo Masheane’s semi-autobiographical My Bum Is Genetic, Deal With It, subverts accepted Western notions of beauty and Lady Skollie has humanised Baartman in exhibitions such as Consuming Us (Cape Town Art Fair, 2016), Hottentot Skollie (WorldArt Gallery, 2016) and Good & Evil (Everard Read, Johannesburg 2019).

Writing on the impossibility of representing Baartman in What is Slavery to Me, author and academic Pumla Dineo Gqola states that Baartman’s paradoxical hyper-visibility has produced volumes of writing on her, but very little captures Baartman’s subjectivity. Gqola is interested in history’s silences more than the overwritten volumes about Baartman during her lifetime or since. 

Speaking into historical silence

Mashile is interested in these historical silences, the erasure of Baartman’s voice and the gaps in her story. The play focuses on the black female body, Baartman’s physical existence, but it also considers her spirit and imagines her inner world.  

Mashile’s interpretation is shaped by references that include the Diana Ferrus poem I Have Come to Take You Home – A Tribute to Sara Baartman, Rachel Holmes’ book Hottentot Venus and Gail Smith and Zola Maseko’s documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman. She also visited the slave lodge in Cape Town and Baartman’s grave site in the Eastern Cape. 

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“I went there to ask for permission because this is a person who lived. When we went to see her grave site, white supremacists, as a response to Rhodes Must Fall, had poured paint all over and put palisades around her grave site. It was really eye opening to realise, which again, came back after the death of Winnie Mandela, that even in death, black women’s memories are sites of violence, sites of conflict. Even in death our memory is something people will desecrate and want to degrade,” Mashile says.

“We speak about what happened to her, what was done to her, how horrific that was and rightly so. But where is her character, where are her responses, where are her processes? Because the story of Sara Baartman has been told so many times, I knew I did not want to tell a linear story.” 

A working and personal process

The play, which poet and theatre maker Koleka Putuma directs, was workshopped with the initial director Pamela Nomvete five years ago. It had its first incarnation at the Centre for the Less Good Idea when vocalist Ann Masina was brought into the fold in 2017, before its runs at Design Indaba and the Windybrow Theatre last year.  

Speaking on the process in her director’s notes, Nomvete says, “It was apparent that the only way into Saartjie Baartman’s heart and spirit would be through the women in the room baring their souls.”

Mashile plays Baartman, the slave who takes on the trauma. Masina is Venus, the divine feminine and Baartman’s eternal god force. 

“After the public fights about my weight and me speaking on it, I realise I’m still in the same position,” says Mashile. “This is a story of many contemporary black female artists because we’re trading the currency of our looks, our sexuality and people’s opinions about us just to survive. If I didn’t have Saartjie as a reference the first time my weight was used against me, I would not have had a frame for understanding why it was happening, that it is political, that black women’s bodies are always scrutinised.” 

For Masina, who provides much of the soul of the show, playing Venus is a lesson in owning your power, a lesson she has come to exemplify. She is an established touring artist who has collaborated extensively with William Kentridge, Robyn Orlin and the Soweto Gospel Choir. 

“Travelling the world with my talent hasn’t been easy. The world repels you, laughs at you and gawks at you when you’re a fat black woman. I was always the centre of attraction, and it was difficult in the beginning. But once I accepted my body, I took back my power. I own my thick skin,” Masina says.

Prioritising black women

She is a formidable and infectious force on stage. Her presence is a liberating familiarity, but also forces one to grapple with the angle of their gaze and the politics thereof. To what extent did the colonial interference change the normal and familiar into abnormal? What needs to be unlearned? 

Mashile’s script is subversive, funny, and poignant at the right moments. It is poetry written to be sung – rhythm and poetry – internal musings, storytelling and transcripts of articles that are complemented by pristine sound design. 

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The content covers sexuality, autonomy, trauma, freedom, celebration and resistance, which all form part of the discussion that comes after the show. The discussion prioritises black women and aims to provide a safe space to unburden themselves. 

In her essay Fetching Saartjie, Gail Smith writes: “Baartman had an indomitable spirit. She cried out repeatedly to be taken home, and her cries have reverberated through the centuries, and over continents.”  

Here Baartman speaks through her “descendants”. She is seen in her own terms – and she will not be silenced.  

Venus vs Modernity is on at the Market Theatre until 28 September 2019.

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