Artist Thola Antamu strives to unravel the enigma of “The Hottentot Venus” in her one-woman performance art instalment, Exhibit S: Ode to Saartjie Baartman – a show in which the Khoi heroine is offered the rare opportunity to voice her distress.
The piece is blessed with the gravitas of an extraordinarily challenging subject matter. Saartjie Baartman’s inability to make her voice known has transformed her epitaph into an illusion. Here was a woman who was objectified in the most literal sense, paraded in front of astonished crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments. She exists in Antamu’s narrative and yet, since Baartman was unable to read or write, almost nothing exists in her own voice. When Antamu ventures into her own personal manifesto, that absence becomes even more notable. But perhaps that is the point of Exhibit S. Treated as a mere object of curiosity, Baartman never possessed any manner of agency in her own life.
Slavery will always be a hot button issue and there is something endlessly horrifying about watching slavery depicted on stage. Exhibit S presents an irresistibly powerful story, in a way that does not shirk the horror. It is uncomfortable to watch at times, as it should be. Antamu’s Baartman starts out in a chained state of disbelief, which gradually gives way to a lingering, almost life-threatening despair. But the silhouette of a defiant woman remains underneath the insistent glare of the spotlight. Antamu’s sedate yet enigmatic monologue transports the audience to that noisy Piccadilly Circus in 1810 where Baartman was absurdly billed and ridiculed. We are forced to engage, and unwittingly take up the place of ‘innocent bystanders’ during Baartman’s agonized subjugation. I was left drained and nauseated, and extremely moved.
As a reprieve Antamu gradually sheds Baartman’s skin and delves into her own personal background. She offers an intriguing autobiographical passage into her life as an orphan, while railing against society’s fetishization of women. At this point Antamu’s crusade becomes slightly diffused. Is it logical to juxtapose the blatant and forceful trafficking of a young, powerless woman with the sexualized gaze of a liberated woman?
Nonetheless, with the current controversy surrounding Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B in London, which similarly examines notions of racial supremacy, Exhibit S becomes all the more intriguing. The novelty of Exhibit S is that it is intended not only as an ode to a particular historical figure but also as a confrontational social commentary about the hyper-sexualization of females in our contemporary world. This has been a rocky year so far for exploitation of female sexuality, with active participation from both men and women. Our world is riddled with the objectification of ethnicity and curves, gross violations of privacy, and ‘twerking’, almost exclusively all featuring women. To that end, the timing for Exhibit S: Ode to Saartjie Baartman to address these controversial social dilemmas is exceedingly apt. If we are lucky enough, this production will soon be revisited.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
Exhibit S: Ode to Saartjie Baartman, a part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival, ran at The Dragon Room from 25 to 29 September 2014.