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The Story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman

Saartjie Sarah Baartman by Samantha Hahn
Illustration by Samantha Hahn

Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (Around 1790–1815)

Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, also known as Hottentot Venus, was one of two African women exhibited at freak shows throughout Europe during the early 1800s. For two shillings, people could look at her “exotic” body and ample buttocks. Customers could even pay extra to poke her with a finger or stick. The injustices aimed at her continued beyond death, with her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remaining on display in Paris until 1974. Baartman’s body shape was often exaggerated in illustrations and documents, and that representation, both at the time and today, has had a lasting impact on stereotypes and the oversexualization of women of African descent. She represents the commodification of black people, as well as colonial exploitation and racism.

Samantha Hahn is a New York-based illustrator and author. With a focus on exploring the female experience, her ethereal watercolor paintings have been exhibited around the world and featured in publications from The Paris Review to Vogue Japan. She has published two books, “Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines” and “A Mother is a Story: A Celebration of Motherhood.”

This feature originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or check out our Photography section.