Advertisements declared her the “Ape Woman” or the “Nondescript,” a creature that could not be described. Doctors declared her a human and orangutan hybrid, and her talent at dance and song were displayed as a contrast to her seemingly unfeminine appearance. Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican woman treated as a spectacle in life, and death. When she died in 1860 following a difficult childbirth, both she and her infant son were embalmed. Up until the 1970s, there are records of them exhibited as carnival curiosities in the United States and Europe. She then became part of the Schreiner Collection in the University of Oslo’s anatomy department.
“Upon hearing her story, I felt that my duty as a Mexican female artist, and as a human being, was to do everything possible to have Pastrana removed from the anatomy collection and returned to Mexico, her place of birth — where she was at the time practically unknown — to receive a proper burial,” artist Laura Anderson Barbata told Hyperallergic.
Barbata was pivotal in leading the 2013 repatriation and burial in Mexico of Pastrana. The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, out now from Lucia|Marquand, chronicles this return, with essays by six authors exploring Pastrana’s life, our treatment of the dead, and the exhibition of fellow humans as “freaks.” Barbata co-edited the book with Donna Wingate, and it draws on over four years of research to understand Pastrana as a person, and restore to her a humanity that was long denied.
“I believed that Julia needed to recover her dignity and to occupy her own place in history as well as in our memory,” Barbata stated. “I felt that if I did not lobby for her removal from the Schreiner Collection she would remain indefinitely stored in a university collection with an inventory number and an inconclusive existence. To defend the rights of all people is our responsibility. These restorative actions help to correct past injustices because we’re also paving the way for a future where this does not happen again — for all people, all of humanity, and that’s why we do these things.”
Pastrana was born in 1834 in Sinaloa, Mexico. A condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis caused her body and face to be covered with long, dark hair; andgingival hyperplasia enlarged her gums and lips. Barbata discovered her story in 2003, when Amphibian Stage Productions, a theater company directed by her sister Kathleen Culebro, invited her to collaborate on designs for the New York premiere of the play The True History of the Tragic Life and the Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World by Shaun Prendergast.
Barbata’s art is often long-term and participatory, engaging in practices such as stilt-dancing in Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico, and papermaking in the Amazon of Venezuela. “My collaborative artistic experiences in Mexico, Venezuela, and Trinidad prepared me for an undertaking that ultimately involved international institutions, government officials, various organizations, and scientists,” Barbata said. And when Pastrana was buried, it was with ritual and ceremony that respected her heritage; she was dressed in an indigenous huipil made by Francisca Palafox, a master weaver from Oaxaca.
It was a ten-year effort to repatriate Pastrana, with Barbata writing letters to the National Research Ethics Committee for the Social Sciences and Humanities, the National Committee for Ethical Evaluation of Research on Human Remains of Norway, the Governor of Sinaloa in Mexico, the Foreign Affairs Department of Mexico, the University of Oslo, journalists, artists, and anthropologists. Many of these recipients became invested in the project.
After both their bodies were desecrated following display in a midcentury chamber of horrors, the remains of Pastrana’s son were lost. Images in The Eye of the Beholder show Pastrana in elaborate costumes, and holding flowers, all part of the attempted shock at contrasting these hyper feminine accessories to her hairy face. In 1855, Pastrana was married to Theodore Lent, who saw her as a path to fortune and fame. Lent “seems to have considered her a model freak, a house-trained monster that behaved well in front of audiences,” writes Jan Bondeson in a book essay. In fact after Pastrana died, he toured his late wife’s corpse, then found another bearded woman to marry. After lying to that woman’s family that he would never exhibit her for money, he renamed her Miss Zenora Pastrana and similarly exploited her appearance.
Pastrana was not alone in her fate. In a book essay, Bess Lovejoy compares her to figures like Sarah Baartman, an African woman exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” for her curvy appearance, and Minik, an Inuit boy brought to the American Museum of Natural History by explorer Robert Peary. Barbata emphasized that the story of Pastrana, and people like her, is not confined to the past; it shadows contemporary exploitation, abuse, human trafficking, and discrimination, and recalls the shortcomings that still exist in human rights. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that the degrading of Pastrana’s gender and race happened at a time in the 19th-century when the rights of women and non-white people were under debate.
“I feel we still have much to learn from Julia Pastrana,” Barbata affirmed. “While her body now rests in peace in Sinaloa, Mexico, her memory must be kept alive to remind us of all that still needs to be done.”
The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home is out now from Lucia|Marquand, distributed by D.A.P.