One of the ‘invisibles of history’

Special to The Times

In the grand scheme of things, Sarah Baartman hardly seemed to count for much. Certainly not in the tumultuous events of Western Europe in the early 19th century. An orphaned girl from an obscure South African tribe of hunter-gatherers, she was one of the ordinary millions who pass through the world like grains of sand washed briefly onto a beach by the tide.

She was one of “the invisibles of history,” says novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud.

But the young shepherdess was to become, for all of her modesty and her quietude, a figure of enormous importance, Chase-Riboud says. “In her brief, unhappy life, she became the Rosetta stone of scientific racism,” the novelist contends.

Chase-Riboud’s historical novel about Baartman, “Hottentot Venus,” which is just hitting stores, tells her version of the story of the modest herdswoman, who was born in 1789 and died in 1816. It’s written in a sweeping, kaleidoscopic style, with Sarah’s melancholy thoughts interspersed with the musings of European scientists of the day and the cold calculations of the people around her.


It’s a hauntingly compelling tale. After coming under the spell of an English physician with big entrepreneurial ambitions in 1810, Baartman traveled to England and France, where she was displayed nude and seminude to a vulgar, uncomprehending public as the Hottentot (from a Dutch word for “stutterer”) Venus, a sideshow freak. “She was, in everything but name, a slave,” Chase-Riboud says.

Aside from her African exoticism (“direct from the Dark Continent,” said the fliers), Baartman had, by European standards, remarkable, outsized buttocks. She was studied by European naturalists and anthropologists as a possible “missing link” between animals and humans. She spent her final years as a part-time prostitute and, according to the author, an alcoholic and drug addict.

In an ultimate act of human objectification, after Baartman had died of tuberculosis, her remains -- her skeleton and her formaldehyde-preserved brain and genitalia -- were placed on display in France’s Musee de l’Homme.

In Chase-Riboud’s view, Baartman was used by 19th century scientists as the prime specimen in the scientific justification of white supremacy. The writer believes Baartman’s life coincided with “the invention of race,” and the Hottentot Venus was Exhibit A in the case for the subjugation of people of color in the European colonies.


Attitudes about race are usually accepted as a given, as instinctive, rather than being derived from human choices, Chase-Riboud said recently in her gold-paneled Paris apartment, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. She insists racism is an invention of the 19th century. “It’s as if apartheid fell from the sky, like a Coca-Cola bottle, and nobody, not even God, could do anything about it,” says Chase-Riboud, 64, who is dark, slim and has a penchant for wry, steely laughter.

In the novel, dates and historical characters correspond to Baartman’s life. “I put her where she was in actual fact,” the writer says. “The rest was a leap of imagination.” Chase-Riboud’s Sarah is dignified, vulnerable, bright (in fact, Baartman learned to read and write and, by the time of her death, she spoke three languages) and loyal.

“A lot has been written on Sarah Baartman, all from the outside, looking at her as an object,” the writer says. “Despite all the literature, she’s never had a voice of her own. I simply take her from the inside out.” In doing so, Chase-Riboud says, she hopes to somehow redeem her -- “to bring her through the front door of history.”

She responds testily to a question about why Baartman went along with her European promoters and was suspicious of the English abolitionists who tried to liberate her. The promoters used promises, threats and isolation to force her cooperation, the writer says. “She wasn’t a modern feminist. She was a simple shepherd woman who was born the same year as the French Revolution.”


Characters of history

This is her fifth historical novel. All have focused on “invisibles,” characters who have little claim to power or fame but who somehow make a mark in the swirl of history. The first was “Sally Hemings” (Viking, 1979), about Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress. Chase-Riboud’s book became a bestseller, intriguing its readers with its plausible scenario of secret love trysts (since proven even more plausible after DNA testing of Jefferson’s descendants) and annoying the patrician Virginia historians who accused Chase-Riboud of besmirching the third president.

There followed “Valide,” the story of a Muslim harem woman, and “Echo of Lions,” a novel about the Amistad slave rebellion, since re-created in a Steven Spielberg movie. (The movie, “Amistad” was also the subject of a Chase-Riboud lawsuit, in which she claimed Spielberg had lifted ideas from her book without crediting her. The suit was settled out of court in her favor for “an undisclosed sum,” she says now.)

For most of the past 40 years, Chase-Riboud has split her time between Paris and Rome -- though she’s not an “expatriate,” which is a “meaningless term” in the age of jet travel and the Internet, she insists -- and has split her artistic focus between writing and art. The studio where she turns out her distinctive sculptures, often combining shanks of silk with monumental pieces of stone and metal, is in Rome. Most of her writing is done in this art-filled Parisian apartment, which she shares with her husband, art dealer Sergio Tosi.


As with any double life, Chase-Riboud’s has required troublesome adjustments and explanations along the way, she says, including addressing two separate audiences. “There’s a reading public out there that doesn’t even know I make sculptures,” she says.

It’s a burden she’s ready to lay down. “I read my horoscope in Vanity Fair last year, which said stop trying to hide your double life,” she says, with that wry laugh. “So I have.” As the new novel comes out, she’s preparing for a major exhibition of 31 new sculptures next April in Rome. In “Hottentot Venus,” she includes, for the first time in any of her novels, a character who’s a sculptor. “It’s like coming out of the closet,” she says.

Curiously, the long-dead Baartman was the driving force in this transition. She was the inspiration for Chase-Riboud’s 18-foot monument “Africa Rising” in the Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building in downtown Manhattan, which sits on the site of a former slave burial ground. On a large ark-like bronze platform is the figure of a dancing woman, with imposing rounded buttocks and windblown garments.

“With the monument, there’s a kind of totality to Sarah’s inspiration,” she says.


A student of the arts

Chase-Riboud was born in Philadelphia, where her mother raised her as a classic “art brat,” her young life brimming with ballet lessons and art and music classes. She graduated from Temple University in her hometown, went on to get a master’s in fine art at Yale, then moved to Europe, first to England, then to France.

“On my first day in Paris, I was invited to a party with Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman,” she says. “They were there with Diahann Carroll and the rest making ‘Paris Blues.’ ” She felt immediately at home. Also at the party was French photographer Marc Riboud, who was to become her first husband and the father of her two sons.

The scene in Paris is a lot different now from the dark existentialist days that have become synonymous with the French literary scene, she says. “There’s not a lot of smoking Gauloises and drinking black coffee at Le Select,” she says, referring to a famous Montparnasse cafe that’s within walking distance of her home. “Most Parisian apartments are heated now, so people no longer have to go to cafes to get warm.”


For Chase-Riboud, the literary life means spending a lot of time in meticulous research and writing novels in longhand. She’s compulsive in her identification with her characters. She talks of “voodoo moments,” when Sally Hemings or others have seemed to speak to her directly.

With Baartman, one such moment came at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, the botanical garden where the famed 19th century naturalist Georges Cuvier used the unhappy African as an unwilling specimen in a three-day symposium on evolution. “I felt very close to Sarah there,” Chase-Riboud says. “It was magical.”

Last year, Sarah Baartman was laid to rest in her homeland. After extensive lobbying by South African artists and politicians, her preserved remains were returned to the place of her birth, the town of Hankey, about 470 miles east of Capetown.

At a mass funeral ceremony there, the remains were purified with burning herbs in the manner of the Khoisan people of the region and, as hundreds of mourners chanted “Mama Sarah, Mama Sarah,” lowered into a grave. President Thabo Mbeki proclaimed the grave as a national landmark.