Photography by Lungelo Mbulwana

‘Venus vs Modernity’ – The play critical of patriarchal gazes on African female bodies

[Sara Baartman] is a grand ancestor for every black woman who has ever felt othered, degraded, hyper-visible, yet invisible.

– Lebo Mashile

Venus vs Modernity comes at a time where GBV (gender-based violence) has become a national and governmental concern in South Africa. Depicting the life of Sara Baartman, the play chronologically delves into the various stages of her life. Her enslavement as a young girl in the Cape, working for a family in the area, falling in love with a soldier, the loss of her child, and then her venture to England prompted by a smooth-talker who promises her fame. With her always, is the figure of Venus (a goddess) taking the piece into a timeless loop–making it all the more relevant as she faces problems that women of colour are still faced with today.

Centuries ago, Sara Baartman became well known, not as a respected or revered individual, or as someone that humanity was bestowed upon, but she became a known name due to the fact that her skin colour was considered ‘exotic’ and her buttocks regarded as ‘abnormally’ large. She was objectified and turned into a specimen of study by the Western gaze, specifically that of the Dutch colonizers. She was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Paris and London. Today, we may ask how has this narrative shifted? When femicide seems to be the order of the day? When we hear about countless murders, rapes and missing women daily? I’m afraid the narrative has not changed as African women are not only shamed for natural figures, objectified and abused in ways that sometimes even take on a subtlety. Abuse against women take on two forms in our society; overt and covert. This abuse is perpetuated by the media as it has been since the time of Sara, ‘othering’ black and brown bodies and black femininity in particular; turning it into spectacle. Lebo Mashile asks the powerful question, “Are we she?”

The role of Sara is portrayed by Mashile herself, supported by her ever companion, Venus, played by Anna Masina (opera singer). Venus vs Modernity can be understood to speak to the way in which the female form is used by society to define us; and by this statement the idea of objecthood comes afore once more; an ever-present qualm. With the ability to act as crude, funny and serious, the piece incites women to own their sexuality with pride.

Showing at the Market Theatre till the 28 September 2019, it is fitting that the show to move on from South Africa to Amsterdam for Afro-Vibes this October due to the colonial legacy which enslaved Sara and many others when the Dutch colonized the Cape. May this be a point of critical reflection.

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