Renée Green (American, b. Cleveland 1959)
Sa Main Charmante, 1989
Mixed media installation (stage light, paper, paint, and ink on wood)
approx. 70 x 88 x 63 1/2 in. (177.8 x 223.5 x 161.3 cm), installed
Ruth C. Roush Fund for Contemporary Art, 1991
Sa Main Charmante offers a gentle tribute to Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus who was put on public display in early nineteenth-century Europe. A ladderlike structure bearing text, a soapbox, a peep box, and a klieg light form a challenging inquiry into the West's relationship to Africa, and into the role of scientific classification in the colonization of African peoples.
Created during the artist's residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1988-89, Sa Main Charmante is one of several works created by Green that deal with the "way that women of African descent have been viewed historically....It has to do with the way their beings and their bodies are seen as foreign territories."1
Sarah Bartmann (1790-1815), or Saartjie Baartman as she was called in Afrikaans, was a Khoi-San (or Hottentot) woman from Capetown, South Africa. She was brought to England in 1810 and displayed as a side-show attraction in London and Paris to demonstrate the alleged anatomical distortions of the black female, particularly the size and shape of her buttocks. Bartmann was subjected to the pseudoscientific investigations of European researchers, including an infamous dissection after her death at the age of twenty-five, as well as to the voyeuristic and judgmental gaze of the general public.2
In the Oberlin piece, a soapbox bearing footprints stands in front of a wall-mounted, ladderlike structure. The ladder's slats are hand-stamped with text3 describing Bartmann's ordeal, interspersed with an excerpt from an 1817 monograph by the French naturalist, Georges Cuvier.4 Cuvier's commentary points out the simian qualities of Bartmann's appearance and discusses not just her buttocks, but her "curtain of shame," a reference to her extended labia minora, which were removed from her cadaver, preserved in formaldehyde, and are still housed in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. In cataloguing her anatomy, Cuvier stressed what he termed the "characters of animality," but condescended to acknowledge "her charming hand," a phrase that Green chose for the title of the Oberlin piece.5
To the left of the soapbox is a peep box in which the viewer is invited to "look" at a reprint of an 1812 French caricature of four Europeans, and a dog, ogling "la belle Hottentote."6 A klieg light, positioned directly across from the peep box, provides backlighting for the peep image, but also harshly spotlights the viewer who is caught in the act of peeking and thus implicated in Bartmann's humiliation and the inhumanity of her keepers. As Michael Brenson remarked, "This work is a commentary on human being as peep show. But this installation is also like a memorial. And it's shaped like a human figure that stares back."7
Architectural in nature, the installation creates a space that invites engagement, one that allows the viewer "to enter into a relationship with the work from different positions, different points of view."8 To imagine standing on her soapbox, backside presented to the audience, is to empathize with Bartmann, but, for the white viewer, it is also to step up and be judged for her treatment.
Green's predilection for text and language was evident early in her career when she became involved with book art and printmaking, and has persisted as she explores themes relating to categorization and naming. "Everyone names things, everyone classifies things in some way. But the West has been able to enforce its names or attach them--to make people accept certain names....When slaves became free, they would often rename themselves. That was a really important part of throwing off the previous oppression. Naming is empowering as well as something that can be confining."9
Sa Main Charmante is one of a series of works by Green that offer poetic tributes to women of African descent and examine the way they have been viewed historically.10 Subsequent bodies of work have dealt with the narratives of colonialism, tourism, taxonomy, and naturalism, as well as the historical interests and effects of "taste."
Work reproduced with permission of Renée Green
Renée Green was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1959. She attended the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1980, and the following year received a B.A. from Wesleyan University and completed the Publishing Procedures Course at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. In addition to her work as a visual artist, Green is also a writer and curator. Her work has been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions, including Expense Account: Figuring the Damage (Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1990); Bequest (Worcester Art Museum, 1991); True Stories (Institue of Contemporary Arts, London, 1992); World Tour (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1993); and The Cooked and the Raw (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1994).
Green lives and works in New York City.
Brenson, Michael. "Renée Green--Anatomies of Escape," The New York Times, 25 May 1990.
Denson, G. Roger. "A Genealogy of Desire: Renée Green Explores the Continent of Power." Flash Art 24, no. 160 (October 1991), pp. 125-27.
Blazwick, Iwona, and Emma Dexter. True Stories. Exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1992.
World Tour. Exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1993.
Purchased from the artist in 1991
New York, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1989. From the Studio: Artists in Residence, 1988-89. 8 October - 31 December. No cat.
New York, Institute for Contemporary Art, The Clocktower Gallery, 1990. Anatomies of Escape. 7 - 8 June. No cat.
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1990-91. Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans. 26 October - 13 January. Unnumbered cat.
Brenson, Michael. "Show at Studio Museum of Its Artists in Residence." The New York Times, 15 December 1989, C36.
Brown, Elizabeth A. Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1990, pp. 9-10, ill. p. 26.
Overall, this piece is in very good condition. Some of the found object components of the piece exhibit expected signs of wear and tear, including dents and abrasions, corrosion of iron alloy components, and traces of former paints and adhesives.
1. Renée Green, quoted in Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans(exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1990), p. 25.
2. Green relied on Stephen Jay Gould's account, "The Hottentot Venus," in The Flamingo's Smile (New York, 1985), pp. 291-305.
3. The text on the slats reads: BAPTISED SAARTJIE BAARTMAN, PRONOUNCED SAR/"EVERYONE WAS ABLE TO SEE HER DURING HER EIGHTEEN MONTH STAY IN OUR CAPITAL, AND/KEY, MEANING LITTLE SARAH IN AFRIKAANS ALSO/TO VERIFY THE ENORMOUS PROTRUSION ON HER BUTTOCKS AND THE BRUTAL APPEARANCE OF/CALLED SARAH BARTMANN OR SAAT-JEE SHE WAS/HER FACE... HER MOVEMENTS HAD SOMETHING BRUSQUE AND CAPRICIOUS ABOUT THEM,/KNOWN AS THE "HOTTENTOT VENUS." FIRST EX-/WHICH RECALL THOSE OF MONKEYS....THERE IS NOTHING MORE FAMOUS IN NATURAL/HIBITED IN PICCADILLY SHE EXITED AND ENTERED A CAGE/HISTORY THAN THE TABLIER (SINUS PUDORIS OR "CURTAIN OF SHAME") OF HOTTENTOTS, AND/COMMANDED BY HER KEEPER. MONEY WAS PROMISED. AN/AT THE SAME TIME NO FEATURE HAS BEEN THE OBJECT OF SO MANY ARGUMENTS... I HAVE/ANIMAL TRAINER EXHIBITED HER IN PARIS WHERE SHE/THE HONOR TO PRESENT TO THE ACADEMY THE GENITAL ORGANS OF THIS WOMAN PREPARED IN A/ CAUSED A SENSATION, BUT AFTER MORE THAN THREE YEARS/MANNER THAT LEAVES NO DOUBT ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE TABLIER./OF EXHIBITION IN EUROPE, IN 1815 AT AGE 25 SHE DIED.
4. Taken from Georges Cuvier, "Extraites d'observations faites sur le cadavre d'une femme connue a Paris et a Londres sous le nom de Vénus hottentote," Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, vol. 3 (1817), pp. 259-74. On either side of the ladder Green has added painted collages of an illustration from Cuvier's treatise.
5. Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo's Smile (New York, 1985), p. 296.
6. The original caricature is Les Curieuses en extase, engraving, 1812, Bibliothéque Nationale (Tf 21/folio, p. 64). Stephen Jay Gould bought an impression of the print in an antiquarian bookshop in Johannesburg, and reproduces it in The Flamingo's Smile (New York, 1985), p. 304.
7. Michael Brenson, "Show at Studio Museum of Its Artists in Residence," The New York Times, 15 December 1989, p. C36.
8. Renée Green, quoted in Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans(exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1990), p. 26.
9. Renée Green, quoted in Social Studies: 4 + 4 Young Americans(exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1990), p. 27.
10. For example, Revue(1990), and Loophole of Retreat(1991), in the collection of the artist.