Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Exhibiting "Others" in the West

The tradition of exhibiting people of color in white Western societies has existed since the earliest encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations in the New World and in Africa. Indeed, on his return to Spain after his first voyage to the New World in 1492, Columbus brought several Arawaks to Queen Isabella's court, where one of them remained on display for two years. Exhibiting non-white bodies as a popular practice reached its apogee in the nineteenth century in both Europe and in USA when freak shows--the exhibition of native peoples for public entertainment in circuses, zoos, and museums--became fairly common.

Five Indians from Kawesqar tribe were kidnapped from Chile in 1881 to be exhibited in one of the European human zoos. They all died within a year.  In January of 2010 the Germany released their remains back to the Chilean Government after 130 years! (Read more here

Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was an unfortunate victim of King Leopold's Genocide of his tribe. He was locked-up in the monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo, NY, USA in the 1906. Slavery in the USA ended in 1865. but this man was enslaved to be a public spectacle for the profit and benefit of the Bronx Zoo. In the land of the free and the home of the brave. For more information on Ota Benga click here. For more information on the murderous rape of the Congo by Belgium's King Leopold click here. To read the George Washington William's open letter that exposed King Leopold's Congo rape of natural resources and genocide of its population click here.

In USA, in particular, the spectacle of "freaks," "natives," and "savages" became a profitable industry at this time, as epitomized in popular traveling shows like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Barnum and Bailey's Circus. World Expositions were also popular for the display of native bodies. During the expositions "natives" performed various ceremonies, rites, dances, and otherwise went about their (supposed) daily routines (even though they were on the exposition grounds). In other words, cultural "others" were employed to perform their "cultural otherness" for an Anglo-American and European audience. Up to the mid-twentieth century displays of this sort continued.

"El Negro" a stuffed (yes this is the body of a real human being) Bushman from Africa, whose body was stolen from his grave (1888), sent to a taxidermist, stuffed like an animal and displayed in Spain from 1916 until the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Where he was sent to his remains were sent to his homeland to be buried. Click here for more.
Live exhibitions were not the only forms of human spectacle; often the dissected and embalmed remains of the "native" body, particularly the skulls, and sexual organs, were also publicly exhibited. Trophy heads, body parts, and other skeletal remains still reside in the collections of many Western museums, like The British Museum and La Musée de l'Homme, France. As recently as 1997, a small natural history museum just outside of Barcelona finally removed a stuffed Bushman from its permanent display cases, after sustained international pressure to do so. The incident strongly suggests that European fascination with exhibiting non-white bodies is not a phenomenon of the distant past.

Saarjite Baartman/ The Hottentot Venus -- Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is perhaps the most infamous case of a Khosian body on display. Baartman, who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks.

Several prints dating from the early nineteenth century illustrate the sensation generated by the spectacle of "The Hottentot Venus." A French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot," for example, depicts the Khosian woman standing with her buttocks exposed on a box-like pedestal. Several figures bend straining for a better look, while a male figure at the far right of the image even holds his seeing-eye glass up to better behold the woman's body. The European observers remark on the woman's body: "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."
Her physique, particularly her steatopygic appendage, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman's public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor.

This introduction to the history of human displays of people of color demonstrates that cultural difference and "otherness" were visually observed on the "native" body, whether in live human exhibitions or in dissected body parts on public display. Both forms of spectacle often served to promote Western colonial domination by configuring non-white cultures as being in need of discipline, civilization, and industry.

Read more about Sarah Baartman:


  1. 'Sarah' Baartman was dead when they placed her lifeless body in an exhibition. They cut out her private parts and brain and displayed her dead body like she was nothing(after her passing at the young age of 25).

    R.I.P 'Sarah' Baartman - who now rests in her homeland of Africa

  2. Sarah's story is so sad. The struggle on preserving memory without re-enslavement presents itself as a paradox, indeed.

    How does one tell the stories like these? The whole phenomenon of "human zoos" is jaw-dropping. I've posted several accounts of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo and the aboriginal tribal people from the southern tip of Chile. It's absolutely amazing that we can unearth these accounts of Sarah, (the internet it truly an amazing research tool).

    I usually don't like posting black women being sexually exploited or abused, but we can't bury our collective heads in the sands of life. We need to bear witness to the next generations and move forward with a "never again" viewpoint.

    Again, thanks for visiting. I've posted more on Sarah, she's cross referenced under "Venus Hottentot"-- I'm fully aware that "Hottentot" is a racial epithet, but most people are aware of her under this pejorative title, so I use the title to reach out to a larger readership.


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