Oh Mama, there’s a tuchas on my stoep

AS A witness, first hand, to gnashing of teeth and unsporting behaviour in the arts, I can only commiserate with those whose writing on the subject is being ignored, only to see their own work exploited for gratis by the Hollywood dream factory.

Get set for the inevitable politically-correct fallout on a loaded subject, one involving exploitation of a major South African historical figure by none other than Beyoncé. (ENTER solicitors stage left).

Beyoncé has announced she plans on writing and starring in her own movie about Saartjie Baartman, “a South African woman who was displayed in London freak shows during the 1800s and nicknamed “Hottentot Venus” because of her large bottom.”

“It’s a very sensitive South African story. To have it vulgarised by Beyoncé” says film-maker Beverly Mitchell, in Independent Online, Tonight. The same criticism was once levelled at William Shakespeare, for producing trashy plays about Italians.

Chiefness Jean Burgess of Plumstead, the spouse of Chief Little, a self-proclaimed Khoisan Chief whose title is disputed. “many privately questioned his legitimacy as a self- proclaimed chief of the Hancumqua and the chiefly status he has bestowed on others in his organisation, the Cape Cultural Heritage Development Council.” was quoted in international media, saying: “She lacks the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah’s story, let alone playing the part,”.

With my teflon coat and flame retardant at hand, I remind myself and others that Rehane Abrahams and Yvette Hardie, once work-shopped a drama on Saartjie Baartman back in the 80s — in a student commune, nogel — the first time the subject had ever received any light as agit prop / vaudeville theatre. Venus Goes Vulger (VGV) had a reasonable run on the Grahamstown Festival in 1989, but died of neglect.

Notable here is that “the play about a big tuchas” and other anatomical details about the female anatomy — in reality an indictment on social darwinism and the colonial gaze — started the trend of similar works on Baartman at theatre festivals, during the latter half of the 20th Century, and thus continuing a tradition began by ‘La Venus Noire’, which ran at the Theatre du Chatelet in 1878 . Recently Brett Bailey, drew crowds and protesters when he explored the self-same VGV material, albeit performance art within a geneology. (A case of shooting the messenger?)

Sadly the student script (which I thought the world of) was a lot better than its burlesque title, which was itself, merely a play on the circus sideshow cabaret in which Saartjie Baartman tragically ended up in a European freak show, next to midgets and the bearded lady.  (EXIT girlfriend stage EX). Thus it wasn’t ‘VGV, which won BAFTA awards, understandably, it was more serious treatments which followed, the ones which also failed to acknowledge their precursors, such as Venus by Suzan Lori-Parks (1996) which won two OBIE awards, arguably a mere appropriation of VGV itself, following a period in which the cultural boycott had quashed South African playwrites as well as the apartheid regime.

Since Saartjie’s remains were returned from Paris, and buried in a public ceremony during the Mbeki era, there have been several books written on the subject including Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton C. Crais, Pamela Scull. In 2010, a French film production Venus Noire appeared, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.

Beyoncé  (and her publicity team) will thus not be the first, nor the last to issue forth verbiage on the subject. Hopefully she will add her unique talent and a voice lacking when it comes to musicals about Saartjie. One however can’t help thinking that fellow artist Nicki Minaj would be a better gamble when it comes to a poignant story featuring a tuchas? Her single Anaconda is better placed in the charts and yes, OMG look at her butt. I therefore take this opportunity to wish Mrs Knowles-Carter good luck and my sincere apologies in advance, for the inevitable comparison, with earlier works.

Beyoncé representatives have since denied that she is involved in the project, of a nevertheless important work.