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“The Venus Hottentot Is Unavailable for Comment”: Questioning the Politics of Representation Through Aesthetic Practices

Part of the Citizenship, Gender and Diversity book series (FEMCIT)


The worldwide interest in the historical figure of The Hottentot Venus (aka Sara Baartman) attests to the desire to rework colonial configurations of “black woman” to open more inclusive and egalitarian notions of citizenship and democracy in a postcolonial world. But how can contemporary practices revise the nineteenth century’s objectifying gaze on The Hottentot Venus without simply repeating it? Can attempts to render voice and point of view to her result in anything but new reductive representations? Can aesthetic practices help problematize and disrupt not only hegemonic representations but also the systems of representation as such, in ways that effectively undermine dominant power structures?

Inspired by Spivak’s assertion that “the figure of woman is pervasively instrumental in the shifting of the function of discursive systems”, this chapter investigates three art fictions—the French film Vénus noire (Abdellatif Kechiche), the American play Venus (Suzan Lori-Parks), and the South African novel Davids Story (Zoë Wicomb)—that seek to circumvent the pitfalls of “speaking for” and “speaking about” the other by offering provisional and partial solutions, always in need of subsequent revisions. The texts work to supplement representation through aesthetic practices such as opacity, re-cycling, and subtraction, thus offering alternative visions in which “(black) woman” is not necessarily re-figured in (new) gendered and racialized discourses, but pre-figures the possibility of alternative modes of citizenship.


  • Double Bind
  • Representational Mode
  • Chattel Slavery
  • Title Character
  • Newspaper Clipping

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  1. 1.

    Badiou argues that subtraction, defined as “the affirmative aspects of negation” (Badiou 2007), is an integral part of all revolutionary change and suggests that today we need a preliminary or “originary” subtraction: a withdrawing of oneself from under the dominant laws of the political reality (of a situation) to create an autonomous space in which revolutionary possibilities can be thought anew.

  2. 2.

    Dominque Widemann employs the same term in a similar way to analyze Kechiche’s close-ups, but without relating it explicitly to Glissant (Widemann 2010).

  3. 3.

    Parks differentiates between “The Venus Hottentot” and “The Hottentot Venus” designations, of which the latter is historical thus negatively charged and only appears in the inserted play.


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Gjerden, J., Jegerstedt, K., Švrljuga, Ž. (2016). “The Venus Hottentot Is Unavailable for Comment”: Questioning the Politics of Representation Through Aesthetic Practices. In: Danielsen, H., Jegerstedt, K., Muriaas, R., Ytre-Arne, B. (eds) Gendered Citizenship and the Politics of Representation. Citizenship, Gender and Diversity. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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