Sarah’s story: Poet, performer and actress Lebo Mashile, the latest artist to take on the story of Sarah Baartman, turns the story on its head. Picture: ANTONION MUCHAVE
Sarah’s story: Poet, performer and actress Lebo Mashile, the latest artist to take on the story of Sarah Baartman, turns the story on its head. Picture: ANTONION MUCHAVE

Sarah Baartman occupies a significant space in SA’s history due to the various political entry points through which her life story can be contemplated. Slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, feminism, sexuality and the exploitation and exoticisation of the black female body — these are issues that are more pertinent now, with the exposure of the long-standing war on women’s bodies at its peak.

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

Several artists have tackled the Baartman story as a form of activism and social commentary, such as choreographer and performance artist Nelisiwe Xaba’s They Look At Me and playwright/director Napo Masheane’s My Bum Is Genetic, Deal With It.

That Baartman’s own voice is missing from most of her story has left some artists with a chance to reimagine her story. In Cargo: Precious, Sylvaine Strike goes for fictional history by focusing on Baartman’s three-month ship journey from Cape Town to the UK, in which she is not portrayed as a victim.

Poet and performer Lebo Mashile is the latest artist to take on Baartman and she turns her story on its head.

The work, initially called Venus Hottentot v/s Modernity was originally conceptualised at Season 1 of the Centre for the Less Good Idea in 2017 featuring vocalist Ann Masina and musician Tlale Makhene and directed by allround artist Nhlanhla Mahlangu. What was seen then was a 20-minute idea of a show of which the development into a full-length theatre production is still ongoing.

"Welcome to the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy detox programme," says a grinning Mashile at the beginning of her Venus Hottentot v/s Modernity monologue, leaning against the ropes of a boxing ring, which is her set. What comes next are uncomfortable realities of the effects of white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal systems delivered in lyrical, dark comedy that, in true Mashile style, speaks truth to power.

Politics of the body and black hair are used cleverly as metaphorical vehicles into these issues, where quips like a "decolonising deep conditioning treatment for dreadlocks" and a "collective amnesia aloe vera shampoo" land comically with an assured aftertaste.

This is accentuated by Masina, whose presence represents the goddess (Venus) and her powerful vocals a one-woman chorus.

Incredible on stage, Masina is an operatic soloist and a jazz, gospel and pop vocalist who has collaborated with a handful of great artists such as Robyn Orlin, Steve Dyer and William Kentridge.

A recreation of the project, now called Saartjie v/s Venus, will be showcased as a 45-minute piece at the Design Indaba festival in Cape Town.

Mashile is excited about the evolution of the show as she reflects on how the Baartman story resonates with her.

"I started thinking about doing this piece about six years ago. As a performer I’m constantly trading my body," she says. "After the public fights about my weight and me speaking on it, I realise I’m still in the same position.

"And so many women are. 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," Mashile says.

"Sarah Baartman is an eternal inspiration to many artists because a whole bunch of issues intersect in her life that affect the black experience — the colonialism, slavery, the objectification of women, the blurry lines between sex, performance and artistry, the blurry lines between artistry and slavery. And erasure. As visible as she [Baartman] was, her voice has been erased," says Mashile.

She and Masina are working with a new team on Saartjie v/s Venus, which includes veteran performer and writer Pamela Nomvete as director and Karabo Legoabe as the set designer.

Their inclusion is set to inject theatrical and storytelling elements to the conceptual nature of the piece.

"We’re telling the story with two characters. Saartjie is the woman who endures. She is the labourer who takes on the trauma. Venus is the eternal god force inside of this woman, the divine feminine.

"There are a number of questions we’re trying to ask: what is a slave? Who is the freak?" Mashile says.

"I’m interested in the inner world of Sarah Baartman, in the woman who made the choices she did.

"I’m interested in how you can be at the peak of your fame and still be at the lowest in your life as a slave. Much of that has not changed."

She finds synchronicity in the fact that this slice of the work will be seen in Cape Town, which forms a vital part of the Baartman story.

When she was 16 years old, Baartman was sold into slavery to a Dutch trader, who took her to Cape Town, where she became a domestic worker.

"Cape Town is as psychologically violent as it is beautiful. And this is the world that Sarah Baartman encountered.

"As we take in the extraordinary programme of creativity that the Design Indaba team has put together, let us also reflect on this," says Mashile.

"But overall I want women to walk out of the show feeling good about their bodies and about their power."

Mashile will give a presentation for the Design Indaba conference on February 22. Saartjie v/s Venus is scheduled for two shows at the Design Indaba Festival on February 23.