I saw something the other day. On the Hottentot Venus wikipedia page, there was a copy of an advertisement, not well sourced. I was looking into the often told story of fashion being influenced by the Khoikhoi body type. Namely the bustle, that thing that protrudes at the back of dresses from the 1800s, when it came into fashion. Are you lost yet? It gets worse. Apparently there was another famous “hottentot” who was around at the same time as Saartjie Baartman. But, her body wasn’t treated the same, or maybe she lived a long and happy life, or something… her name has disappeared, but I found a reference to her existence somewhere in the archives and went on a hunt for her name and lost the original reference in the process but learned a lot more on the other side. And, as an aside, “hottentots” were shown for a really long time. I have a hard time with all the ones we forget for how strong the memory of Saartjie Baartman is… but I understand. I really, truly, understand. It is why I can’t bring myself to post the very old pictures of the cast of her body that was in the Jardins, even though I know where that photo lives digitally. It hurts to see. But, there were more. And they displayed the men and children too. Here are some albums from the 1884 international exposition in Paris (I don’t remember there being images of the children here): http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b77023200.r=Hottentots%2C+album+de+31+phot.langEN http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7702319b.r=hottentot.langEN My relationship with these images is complicated. I will be addressing it in my dissertation (and I addressed part of it in my article). I mean, that part is basically written… the nuts and bolts of it is this though is, often people chose to go to these expositions. We cannot know why. But, often times, these images that come from these awful practices are the only reflections we see of bodies that look like ours in the historical photographic archive. And if we can step out of the colonial framing for a moment, and look again, maybe we’ll see something else. Maybe we’ll even find a name. For instance, the woman on the right in this series of photos is named Bebye Rooi.The names of the other two have been lost to history. I know her name because of the amazing work of Deborah WIllis and Carla Williams, who use one of the photos from this series in their book “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History”.
Anyway, in the midst of my research I found plays that talk about the Hottentot Venus and how in love with her body people were from 1814. I read the play linked below about a man who is so enamored with the idea of Venus Hottentot that he refuses to marry his cousin. She meets a man who tells her how popular the body shape is in Paris. All the women are buying clothes and house coats that allow them to have a body in her shape. She buys one of these outfits. Her cousin immediately falls in love with her, and when the real Venus Hottentot arrives he accuses her of being an impostor.
Just found a play called “La Vénus hottentote, ou Haine aux françaises , vaudeville en un acte” http://t.co/YGNIcIXzJz
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) June 26, 2014
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) June 27, 2014
I found a single reference to the “tournure hottentote” (hottentot bustle) in my initial French search. It was in a digest of court cases. The story is actually a little bit funny. A wife told her husband she was pregnant for the fourth time. He kicked her out of the house and sent her to the hospital and told her not to return home if she brought home another girl (they had three girls already). Well, luck would have it that she had a girl. And he didn’t let her come back. So with the help of a friend who had a key and had a neighbor who was on her side, when he was away she would have the neighbor go to the house and get her stuff, including a pot. The neighbor put the pot under her dress as he ran into her during one of these find and retrieve runs, in the back. He was very angry about the pot and said she looked ridiculous, with that pot giving her a “tournure hottentote” (you can read all about it here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k4514944.r=%22tournure+hottentote%22.langEN). Since my French search was turning up nothing, and I’d fallen down a black hole of research for the night on this weird historical representation
This one was a bit painful because the idea of the body had gone from beautiful but grotesque (I think we understand grotesque but beautiful things) to monstrous… and it becomes monstrous at the time those three beautiful women above were in paris as well as the others in that album possibly. Anyway, after the French search I moved on to research in English. I found tons of photos American Bustles that mimic the shape, so I’m wondering if it was more an american fashion thing (will need to find a fashion scholar to ask). But something else happened… I looked up “hottentot bustle” and learned that it is medical short hand for Steatopygia, the medical term for having a completely natural body shape. The shape is described as having a backside that looks like it belongs to a wholey different body. But.. these women, men and children existed and exist. That’s why I think these photos are important.
and it hurts that this is the medical terminology. That is from 1994, so 20 years ago. So I did another scholar search and found medical references as recently as 2011 that call it the hottentot bustle.. and I learned that hottentot apron is the shorthand for elongated labia, or Hypertrophy of the labia minora, because that is something that was also common amongst the tribe. Another “medical condition” to describe perfectly normal bodies. That term also has an article from the 2010s, but I didn’t bookmark it and don’t care to look for it right now. So… a search for a name and a fashion reference (which yes, i found some in Vaudeville, but have not yet found a hard link to it changing fashion), led to finding out a bunch of other disturbing stuff. But it’s the stuff that makes me think it’s important that we see the image above for what it is, and for what it could be. I write about image 3 in my dissertation (if you click through on the image you can see a bigger version). The women are linked, they are embodied, and they are there. For some they might be an oddity, but for someone like me, and many others, it is one of the few occasions I see my body reflected back historically. And, despite the circumstance, their heads are high. They aren’t some marvel of modern medicine. They are just there. And they are beautiful. And I am thankful that I know they existed, even though I will only ever know the name of one. I never did find the name of the other famous “hottentot” from the early 1800s… she’s lost to a few historical footnotes.
I came across a book. I’ve since played with the book, looked through it, learned about it, and digitally cut bits and pieces of it up and put them back together again as collages. I realized in speaking to others about this book, that if this book was digitized in its entirety, if in the digital format it could still be recognized as a book, or, as individual photographs, it would lose too much. We would lose too much.
The book is The Secret Museum of Anthropology (The Secret Museum). It was a privately printed book created by the American Anthropological Association in the 1930s. It is authorless and not officially recorded (the inside cover says “privately printed”). There are no marks on it indicating it was ever catalogued. It never received wide circulation, something that is built into its design as a privately published book. Despite being in an area with a plethora of Universities, there is no library around here that has it. But I do. I was able to purchase a used copy online. I know had I found this book in a library, my thoughts on it might be a little bit different. I did not though. Acquiring the book was unique experience in and of itself that helped me frame where my thoughts are headed. Thumbing through the book changed some of my thoughts on digitization.
The book is a collection of photographs that were pirated from a German book titled Das weib bei den naturvolkern : eine kulturgeschichte der primitiven frau (Primitiven frau), published in 1928. The rough translation from Google Translate is “The female in aboriginal peoples: a cultural history of the primitive woman”. Primitiven frau was digitized and is available through the Internet Archive project. The feeling of the two books, even as they contain the same photographs is completely different. The Secret Museum is a carefully edited version of the Primitiven frau, with the photographs chosen for their erotic nature. This editorial liberty limits the ability to look at the book as though it is an anthropological work rather than a pornographic one. That doesn’t mean whoever was responsible for putting this private collection together didn’t try to play as though it were real scientific anthropology. The part of the book I present/perform is the part that does just that. Part of the interactive installation piece I created is a video which can be seen below. It features a series of simple line drawings from the middle of The Secret Museum that attempt to catalog and number different types of breasts found in the photographs of the women whose photographs grace the pages of the book:
When I first received The Secret Museum, the image of the “different types of female breasts and nipple formations” made me laugh, not because it was funny, but because it made me say “of course”. The display of these breasts was the sole purpose of this book. Once I confirmed the source of the photographs, Ferdinand Freiherr von Reitzenstein, and looked up his books only to find that Primitiven frau, the book that contained these photographs originally was digitized, I was shocked. I saw flesh and bones and words instead of just flesh and crude drawings of flesh. In fact, there are more pages of words in Primitiven frau than there are of photographs and x-rays. The drawing included in The Secret Museum, appears on page 61 of Primitiven frau in a section that is 17 pages of analysis where breasts are discussed.
Instead of seeing this drawing as a numbered series that reduces the women in the book to only the drawings themselves, they exist in a larger context. While the context is problematic, at best, we are able to see the intent of Ferdinand Freiherr von Reitzenstein. Rather than simply creating a book of pornographic imagery, he did attempt to create an anthropological work on “primitive women”. Furthermore, though they are few, in addition to the photographs of nude and partially nude women Primitiven frau contains drawings of jewelry and women participating various acts, and other cultural items, such as songs with music and lyrics. There is even a photograph with fully clothed women. Additionally, the book contains an index. The Secret Museum renders the women anonymous in a way that they can never be confronted as though they existed. The index in Primitiven frau prevents this from happening, because at the very least, we know where the women we are seeing existed. Despite the problematic nature of the book, it has a wealth of information to offer us, even as we look to day in the post-post colonial age.
If The Secret Museum were to be digitized, we would lose the covertness of its creation. For me, that is the most important thing the book has to offer. The seediness of its production and purpose would be lost if the book was publicly and freely accessible. The act of having to search for the book, and find a “deal” on it, or having the book presented with the caveat that it is rare and was never published for a wide audience, the ability to touch and feel the book, to smell and see the pages and random ink colors, creates a performative experience with the book that digitization does not have. Making the book digital would erase so much of what this book does. It would allow us to lose the idea that the original audience that this book was designed for will remain forever hidden. Further, the ability to see the physical product against the digital version of what it was pirated from, on a screen where we can see page upon page of text, creates an interesting conversation around what happens when we lose text. I think seeing the physical book coupled with the digital text truly illustrates some of the issues digitization causes for certain artifacts.
It isn’t that I don’t want people to see The Secret Museum. To the contrary, the more people who can experience the book, the better we can understand, especially in the academy, whose bodies our disciplines were built upon and to what ends. It’s just that I want people to do more than see the book. I want them to experience the book. When looking through the screen at a digital version of a book, or a photo, I find it is too easy to forget that we are seeing something real that existed in a larger context that affected and affects different people differently. To lose the bodies first through a photograph and then through the digitization of a book we lose too much. The material experience of a book that can be taken out of a little bag, the method I choose to unveil the book in my installation performance, takes away the ability to show and remember how easily books like this were, and continue to be, hidden. I fear that in this digital culture of openness and access we forget that even today, there is so much that remains out of reach.
I would like to stress that I do not think the limits of digitization are a bad thing. In fact, I think they are wonderful things that open up new possibilities. The Digital’s tendency to reduce the experience of certain things is the space where I like to play. It is the space that is inherently made of breaks and new paths, breaks and paths that I am exploring in my own dissertation work. Because this is the space of my work though, I think it is important to realize and remember that there are places where digitization cannot translate, where the losses created by access and openess are too great.
It’s been about a month since I made my initial post on the Trigger Warning that appeared on Sociological Images. Since then, they’ve posted another post with the exact same trigger warning and issue. It has been very generative for me to experience this. I am working through what it means to face oppression the way that we do. I think I am almost comfortable with my thoughts on it, which is good because I have a final presentation/performance thing for my last performance studies course ever on December 7th and that is what I wrote/am writing on. This is what I’ve come up with so far (aka iteration/draft 1) for my digital installation:
I might play with it a bit more… I might even try to play with popcorn.js, but I am happy with where it is. Popcorn Maker was easy to use. Working through this allowed me to let go of that second post. I think I don’t need to comment on it. But I will add it to the list of things that make me shake my head and push me to do my project.
I have a book. It has been in my possession for a few weeks now. It is called The Secret Museum of Anthropology. It was a private printing from the American Anthropological Association created in 1935 from a series of pirated photos. It included illustrations as well, to make it more science-y I am guessing. The photo above is the cover, the copy, and the drawing that I’ve been intrigued by since receiving the book. I… like it? No. Yes? It is provocative. That is a better word I think.
So, today, since I woke up an hour early due to daylight savings time, I decided to finally work through the illustration and the book by drawing, photographing, printing, cutting, and pasting. The result is a triptych (three 16x20inch panels) of the book and the breasts featured in the book. I did this because my way of working through problems is to play with them/tear them apart, recreate them, meditate on them, and then figure out what the hell is going on in my head around it (Yay to weird methodological approaches!).
[those are some crooked photos!] I think I might keep it in this order. I think what was so intriguing to me about the photograph is the ability to reduce even breasts to types, when, if you actually put the illustration next to the breasts in the book, it… doesn’t work. The reduction is actually, hilarious. And the actual breasts in the book are overwhelming. So, that is where I am. The problem is, and will always be, the reduction of women of color from specific groups being reduced to a squiggly line, a line that can be erased and erases at the same time.
I need to finish cleaning up the drawings. I am debating adding the numbers. I will be sharing the triptych with a class in 1.5 weeks, so I need to get everything finalized. I think I’m almost there.
In attempting to understand the origins of racism, it is important to avoid removing it to a historical past or displacing its sources onto the oppressed. Any investigation or representations of [otherness], then, must take a critical look at Euro-American whiteness to understand the construction of race as a category. As critic Coco Fusco has insisted, “To ignore white ethnicity is to reduce its hegemony by nautrualizing it”
Brian Wallis, Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerrotypes, in “Only Skin Deep”, p. 179
In the original quote, “otherness” was “african-american blackness”, but as we move out towards Euro-American ideals of seeing “types”, it becomes the other. This is post is a reaction to a recent post that was featured on Sociological Images, Human Zoos at the Turn of the 20th Century. The post featured this mans quotes and appeared to be in response to a Speigel Online article on remains being returned home. The article featured a small photogallery. Instead of using the image of the man behind the terror/horror, the only images that accompanied the article, and article that led with the trigger warning on the image above, only featured images of the “victims”, not the man. I think the trigger warning should sit with the man holding the gun. If we are going to face it, we should see the proper faces of the violence. Not the metaphorical remains of their inhumane actions. That strips those people and their descendants of their humanity, over, and over, and over again. The new term I learned this weekend from my psychoanalysis reading was “soul murder”. I’m starting to think that is what the displacement of oppression does.
The image above is my attempt at properly facing the trigger warning, because he was not one of the ones who stayed so behind the scenes of the people and the photographs that we do not have his name or quotes or (hi)story, and because his name is still spoken, anytime someone wants to go to his zoo, the one that bears his name.