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PostSubject: An Artist Finds a Dignified Ending for an Ugly Story   Thu Feb 14, 2013 9:25 am

Her own husband called her a “bear woman.” An 1854 advertisement in The New York Times said she was the “link between mankind and the ourang-outang.” She became known in the popular imagination during the mid-19th century as “the ugliest woman in the world.” After she died from complications of childbirth, her body and the body of her baby appeared for decades in “freak” exhibitions throughout Europe.

On Tuesday, more than a century and a half after her death, in 1860, the woman, Julia Pastrana, will finally be given a proper burial near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico. Her return home from a locked storage room in an Oslo research institute would not have been possible without the nearly decade-long efforts of the New York-based visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata.

In 2003 Ms. Barbata’s sister, Kathleen Anderson Culebro, produced a staging of “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World,” in Texas. That play, by Shaun Prendergast, had its debut in London in 1998 and is performed almost entirely in the dark. Mr. Prendergast said in an e-mail that the setting “seemed the perfect marriage — a woman known for her ugliness, but with a beautiful voice, presented in a way which would force the audience to conjure her with their imagination.”

Pastrana has also been the subject of films, including “The Ape Woman” (1964); an alternative rock song; and a comic book.

Ms. Barbata, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Sinaloa, designed costumes for her sister’s production. She was moved by Pastrana’s story.

“I felt she deserved the right to regain her dignity and her place in history, and in the world’s memory,” Ms. Barbata said by telephone from Oslo last week. “I hoped to help change her position as a victim to one where she can be seen in her entirety and complexity.”

Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834. She had two rare diseases, undiagnosed in her lifetime: generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which covered her face and body in thick hair, and gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums.

A Mexican customs administrator bought Pastrana in 1854 and began showing her throughout the United States and Canada, part of a growing business of traveling exhibitions displaying human oddities. (Though slavery had been abolished in Mexico decades earlier, many circus performers were still sold.) In New York Pastrana married Theodore Lent, an impresario who became her manager.

“She was definitely in love with Mr. Lent,” says Jan Bondeson, a rheumatologist at Cardiff University in Wales, whose book “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities” includes a chapter on Pastrana. “I am certain the reason he married her was that he could keep control of her and the not unconsiderable earnings.”

Lent toured his wife throughout Europe, where some newspapers and books described her appearance unsparingly: “gorillalike” or “revolting in the extreme.” Some felt her appearance masked other qualities, however. Francis Buckland, a British natural historian, wrote in an 1868 book that Pastrana had a sweet singing voice, “great taste in music and dancing, and could speak three languages.” He added, “She was very charitable, and gave largely to local institutions from her earnings.”

more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/arts/design/julia-pastrana-who-died-in-1860-to-be-buried-in-mexico.html?_r=0

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