The Couple in the Cage: Guatinaui Odyssey. Directed by Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia. Chicago: Video Data Bank, 1993. 31 minutes.

The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus. Directed by Zola Maseko. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 1999. 53 minutes.

The Human Zoo: The Final Journey of Calafate. Directed by Hans Mulchi. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2013. 93 minutes.

Reviewed by Susan Sleeper-Smith

Since the arrival of Columbus, negative stereotypes have characterized Indigenous people. Judged as the antithesis to civilization, they were measured against Western culture. These three films focus on the elaborate ethnographic descriptions that deemed them morally inferior and primitive. Each film demonstrates that despite of centuries of contact, the “real” native people remain masked by racist stereotypes, fictively imagined as they once were, rather than as they are now.

Stereotypes created a legacy of racism, which helps explain why audiences often believed that performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco were members of a recently discovered primitive people. For two years, these two performance artists traveled throughout cities in North America and Western Europe and were exhibited as The Couple in the Cage. They called their homeland Guatinau, which was described as a recently discovered island in the Gulf of Mexico. Both actors intentionally created an over-the-top satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other. Displayed in a cage, their daily performances ranged from sewing voodoo dolls to watching television. In front of the cage was a collection box where, for a small fee, the primitive woman would perform a traditional dance (to rap music) while her male companion relied on gibberish to recite authentic Amerindian stories. Both also willingly posed for visitors. At New York’s Whitney Museum, visitors were offered a peek at “authentic Guatinaui male genitals” for five dollars. Two official-looking guards not only stood ready to answer visitors’ questions but also fed the caged couple bananas and escorted them to the bathroom on leashes. At various museums, the Guatinauis were described as “specimens” and had their skulls measured.

This documentary effectively captures the reactions of viewers to Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performances. Some expressed doubt that these two were Indigenous people, but most spectators failed to raise questions about the authenticity of their identity, which suggests the profound level of racism that continues to mask our understanding of Indigenous cultures. In the twenty-first century, Americans and Europeans have not yet shed the belief that non-Western people are primitive, inferior, and essentially different from Western people. The Couple in the Cage persuasively argues that racism remains pervasive and that colonial ideas continue to influence our approach to non-Western cultures.

The Couple in the Cage is an ironic reenactment of earlier imperial practices of displaying Indigenous people in public venues such as taverns, museums, and freak shows. Beginning with Columbus, native people were routinely kidnapped by explorers and transported to Europe; most died abroad and never returned to their homelands. This practice of display was heightened by the advent of nineteenth-century scientific racism, which both The Life and Times of Sara Baartman and The Human Zoo deal directly with. The Human Zoo tells the story of twenty-five people from Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia who were kidnapped by a German businessman in the late nineteenth century, only one of whom survived to return to his homeland. Sara Baartman’s life was equally tragic: in 1810 she was transported from South Africa at age twenty and died five years later, far from her Khoi Khoi homeland.

The Life and Times of Sara Baartman addresses the racism that led European audiences to attend these public spectacles of primitive people. Objectified in contradictory terms, Baartman’s body gained meaning as both a Venus and a freak, a woman and an ape. Europeans had a morbid fascination with genitalia, and Baartman’s large buttocks captivated her public audience. In Piccadilly Square, London, the curious could pay two shillings to see her housed in a cage on a stage that was about three feet high and then paraded around the stage. Abolitionists who noticed her appearance as a slave were outraged and brought her sponsor before the Court of the King’s Bench. Slavery had been outlawed in England for four years, and although her sponsor was found not guilty, England became a less desirable venue for exhibiting her. The more viable alternative was transporting Baartman to France, where slavery was still legal and she was sold to an animal trainer who displayed her from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. People could gawk at her for 3 francs. French scientists engaged in the “scientific” study of human differences took a particular interest and paid her owner to allow them to examine her for three days. These men measured every part of Baartman’s body, especially her head, which was believed to be the seat of the intellect and therefore the basis of human progress. At the same time, the scientists compared her to an animal, describing her buttocks as similar to that of an ape and giving virulent racism the patina of science. Baartman died a short time later, and her corpse was given to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where her skeleton was displayed until 1974.

The story was equally bleak for the Indigenous people kidnapped from South America. Like the Baartman documentary, filmmakers raise questions about the methods of nineteenth-century scientific research in The Human Zoo. This film goes beyond scientific racism to focus on the repatriation struggles of Indigenous people who attempted to secure and rebury their ancestors. It revolves around the discovery of a collection of five Kawésqar skeletons in the archives of the anthropology department at the University of Zurich. Swiss researchers helped the filmmakers begin the work of repatriation to Chile, which proved a lengthy, agonizing process and unfolded as emblematic of the legacy of colonial oppression, one that continues to separate Indigenous Chilean communities from their national government. For both Indigenous Chilean people and for the Khoi Khoi of South Africa, the souls of the deceased would not be at rest until their bodies were reburied in their homelands. Both films make clear the ongoing trauma of racism in the present day and the heart-wrenching struggles two communities have faced as they attempted to secure the remains of their people who were housed in Europe’s museums and universities.

Professor Sleeper-Smith ( joined the Michigan State Department of History in 1994 where she presently serves as professor and is the Interim Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library. Her work examines Native American/Euro-American encounters during the colonial and early national histories of North America. Her research explores the repetitive nature of this ongoing process, demonstrating the Indigenous resistance to intrusion and strategies of survivance. Professor Sleeper-Smith also focuses on Indigenous women’s involvement in the process of encounter and studies how gender affects cultural interaction. In 2018, the Omohundro Institute published her most recent work, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women in the Ohio River Valley, 1691-1792, and she has published widely on indigeneity, gender, epistemology, and US history in monographs, including Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes, in the edited collection Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Knowledge, and in numerous essays in journals and edited collections.