an essay by jessica felicity kasiama
photos by Alexis E. Morales
In 1810, Saartjie Baartman travelled away from her home in Southern Africa with military surgeon Alexander Dunlop. Her story, although often forgotten, foreshadows the exhausting degradation of the female body. Dunlop believed that Baartman would be an object of fascination overseas due to the excessive amount of fat on her buttocks known as steatopygia, large breasts and extended labia minorum. A French man soon purchased her for himself and placed her in a circus to be put on display again. They nicknamed her the Hottentot Venus, ordering her around like an animal to make audiences laugh and cower. This unethical and immoral lifestyle did not last long, Baartman passed away in 1815. Much too soon after her death, she was dissected so that researchers could preserve her brain and genitals to showcase at Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris. Baartman was spent by the ego and entitlement of her oppressors.
Where do we belong?
I live in a season of transience. I rarely feel grounded but the city I call my temporary home is kind. I go for a walk one afternoon, think of Saartjie Baartman and write love notes about eternity. The love notes, streams of consciousness printed onto distorted self portraits, feel special so I make copies and hide them around the city because the city listens. They read:
ARE YOU FLOATING ABOVE YOURSELF TODAY? I AM POSSESSED BY A DESIRE TO GIVE MYSELF TO THE WORLD. LIKE A RED FLARE, TO FEEL ANYTHING. I HAVE LEARNED THAT TO SURVIVE HERE, YOU MUST:
A. TAKE IT UPON YOURSELF TO MIX BLOOD AND INK.
BODIES BURNING ON RECEIPT PAPER.
(BELIEVE THAT YOU ARE CAPABLE)
B. BECOME A SPY. INFILTRATE YOUR OWN MEMORIES.
C. ESCAPE THROUGH SKIN TO ARRIVE AT A DREAM.
My idea is that if I release the parts of myself that are authored by obsessions and insecurities, I will be free. If I am honest and kind, I will unlock a portal to a higher self. Through the lens of the dominant culture, my truth has already taken shape. My identity is understood as a binary option. I see myself on an egg white sheet of paper, systematically predetermined. On display. Etherized by my Otherness, prepared for dissection.
My body oscillates between invisibility and hyper-visibility. I think of myself as a younger girl, staring into the dead blue eyes of a plastic Barbie doll. Her nippleless, soulless body was a constant reminder of my differences. She taunted me and made my skin feel heavy and manufactured. We were both dolls in our own right. This memory creeps on me in moments of silence so I create noise to avoid remembering. Silence can be weaponized but it can also soften you like a flame hovering over wax. Silence creates space for nostalgia and nostalgia invites me into a utopia where I am invited to dance with every moment of trauma and every moment of joy. Silence understands that we are bodies inside bodies inside bodies obsessing over the origin stories that creates our personalities.
My sense of self is fragile and violent, it is strictly afraid of silence and the thin, blonde-haired plastic ghosts that haunt me when I am forced to remember.
I decide to become a citizen in a city of my own making. The city lives inside me like a secret world of feelings. I trip over my words too often, they make sense in my mind until they leave my mouth and I don’t recognize the sound of my own voice. When I recognize myself in art, I give it space to author dimensions separate from this shared universe.
Metal clouds and skyscrapers are built from the colours, sounds and memories that creep into the present moment and foreshadow futures that the oppressive forces exclude me from.
I’d like to journey back to myself to figure out how to feel, to figure out what to feel. Maybe I’m just a black body burning on receipt paper. Maybe I’m just a city inside a black body burning inside an Earth body.
On Wednesday, a woman catches my eye in the subway car and reminds me that home exists inside the margins. Where do I feel at home? At home, in my bedroom / a museum, a diary / a cluttered space that mirrors the cluttered corridors of my mind / is diary.
Dollar store daisies dangle from the top of my window. In a nightmare once, my subconscious replaced them with the image of dangling meat in a butcher’s shop I remember visiting when I was younger. Morning pulled me out of the illusion and I let myself cry until things felt real again. The off-white walls tell me I am safe. I understand things in this dimension: a home inside a home.
When fall comes around, I live out of a backpack and carry home with me:
count everything, see everything:
blue car, brown car, ice cream cone mashed into sidewalk.
skin that feels like an overcoat / sometimes I am an orb
I feel punctured by time and the ideology attached to time as a marginalized person. The objects that fill my room remind me that I am allowed to exist in the past, the present, and future. The bedroom in my mother’s home is a museum that tells me I no longer have to eat from the plate of a system that understands my body as something disposable, an object to place on display, with an expiration date. Preservation is nourishing. I am sedated by the image of my body in the mirror. My finger traces the scar on my right arm. My understanding of this feeling of ownership is elevated.
Today, I understand the secret of belonging to yourself. Tomorrow, I forget but still consider my body a Sister, a container that keeps the self packaged, aligned, and loved. I think of every story, every woman who infiltrated the futures ahead of her. I am sustained by solidarity.
The mirror is patient while I negotiate every portrait I am suddenly seeing in each curve / each portrait I am finally feeling in every handful of flesh / each portrait in the bone buried beneath the flesh jutting away from the root / I don’t feel real but I belong to myself.
Saartjie Baartman is dancing through the sky tonight: it is red with pockets of gold and I know that the memory of Her will outlive everything.
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