Friday, May 9, 2008

Representing Self and Others

The power of story telling is deceptive. The representations of ourselves in print or image can seem to be "kids stuff" -- a lovely adornment, a harmless pastime or a frivolous diversion form the "serious" business of life. In fact, historically there is nothing further from the truth.

In traditional societies, story telling was ubiquitous and its centrality to the transmission of culture evident. Reflect, for example, on rites of passage the world over -- their mobilization of stories through props, scripts, role plays, costumes, chorus -- for the express goal of transforming the individual's conception of self and their relationship to society. These rituals, as well as the myriad of everyday representations of self and other, are ways in which people have participated in the formation of individual and collective identities.

In contemporary society -- the society dominated by global communications, scientific method and market economies -- the role of stories is somewhat obfuscated. Few people dispute that advertisements affect people's tastes, but the breadth and depth of the question of representation remains mostly unprobed, with some notable exceptions.

Renée Cox is one exception. She has dedicated her professional life to remaking the representation and perception of blackness and black womanhood. In this photo of the Hottentot-Venus , Renée deploys ridiculous plastic breasts and buttocks and her trademark gaze to challenge the traditional representation of the real "Hottentot Venus", the name given to the Saartjie Baartman (1789 - 1816). Saartjie was an orphaned Khoisan servant brought from South Africa to England against her will and enticed into becoming a show girl on the promise of becoming rich. Billed as the Hottentot Venus, Saartjie's dance shows in body-fitting stocking were extremely popular with late-Georgian Londoners and later the Napoleonic French. She became the archetype of African womanhood for many of the epochs artists and upon her death at age 26, her body was dissected and its parts, including her genitalia that were her prime attraction, boiled, bottled and plaster casted to be put on display. In 2002, after 8 years of battle, South Africa secured the return of Saartjie Baartman's remains to her birthplace where they were honored with a state burial.

Today, Saartjie Baartman is modern South Africa's most revered female historical icon of the colonial era. The story of Saartjie Baartman exemplifies the power of image making in identity formation and transformation whether or not the image makers are aware of the power they hold.

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