South African poet and activist Diana Ferrus was in conversation with journalist, writer and editor Gail Smith at the Abantu Book Festival on Saturday about the paths which led them to identifying with the plight of Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman, the South African Khoi woman who was taken from her country of birth to be displayed as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe as the Hottentot Venus. Ferrus wrote a poem, ‘I have come to take you home’ while living in Holland in 1998 and the poem became the catalyst for the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa.
Ferrus outlined the moment which inspired her to write the momentous poem which prompted the repatriation of Baartman’s remains. The poem was written on a study tour abroad when Ferrus became desperately homesick. She said she tried to contrast her own feelings at the time to the feelings which Baartman would have experienced during her imprisonment in England and ultimately France. Ferrus and Smith worked together to repatriate Baartman’s remains and the latter produced a documentary on the journey.
In 2002 Smith wrote a piece titled ‘Fetching Saartjie‘ for the Weekly Mail detailing her experience while shooting the documentary in France stating:
“As I huddled further into my three layers of clothing I could only imagine Baartman’s misery in such hostile environments, with no warm clothes, surrounded by men so obsessed with her vagina that they were constantly trying to persuade her to drop the remaining garments she wore…my week in Paris documenting the return of Baartman has confirmed my faith in the existence and power of spirit. Baartman had an indomitable spirit. She cried out repeatedly to be taken home, and her cries have reverberated through the centuries, and over continents,” she wrote.
Smith stated that the making of the first documentary about the process of bringing Baartman home was underpinned by an urge to recreate her experience as a human rather than an object.
“[Baartman] was a human being, it wasn’t a disembodied body,” said Smith.
The two speakers agreed that one aspect through which they could relate to in the life of Baartman was the diminishing of her agency to a point of objectification.
“Sara Baartman did not have agency even though many people would portray it as though she did, based on her occupation,” said Smith
Smith added that from a young age she could not understand why her own body had been hypersexualised by black and white men during apartheid from a young age “even before I had had sex”. However, it was when she participated in the repatriation project that she was able to identify the roots of this misogynistic attitude.
When a reference group was established to organise the details of Baartman’s burial, Ferrus described how the indigenous people who formed part of the group engaged in heated arguments. She said she did not want to fight over Baartman’s burial to preserve the reclaimed dignity that Baartman had lost when her body was dismembered in France.
Ferrus believes that the repatriation, in addition to the burial and symbolic clothing of Baartman gave the latter the dignity which she should have had in her death. Ferrus added that France alone had stored many more bodies that need to be repatriated so that other families and communities could have the opportunity to dignify their ancestors in the way in which Baartman was eventually dignified.
There is ongoing work to reclaim the dignity of Baartman. The Castle in Cape Town, a colonial space which is in the process of being reclaimed, currently has a exhibition on where Ferrus’ poem has been translated and placed alongside the crate that Baartman’s remains were once carried in, the exhibition is titled ‘Inter-resting times’ and runs until 10 December.
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