An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Spanning the terrain from high art to popular culture and everything in-between, the complexity of race, gender, and culture continues to dog us. For Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z, the measured exploitation of these things through high art and popular culture is best witnessed in ‘Apeshit,’ a track and accompanying 6-minute video from their first joint album called Everything is Love. The video begins with fragments and close-ups of European paintings from the Louvre, a hallowed cultural space where masterpieces of European culture and civilization are housed, where imperial and colonial might through conquest and acquisition are put on grand display.
‘Apeshit’ is an arresting, and I would even go so far as to say brilliant video for what it does and does not do; for what it reveals and conceals; for the ways in which it meaningfully appropriates, exploits, and reinterprets Western paintings and sculptures as a way to chart and celebrate the Carters’s public and commercial success, and black bodies in an artistic canon inextricably linked to histories of colonialism. The video is an unapologetic visual and sonic manifesto about spaces, power, and control. To be sure, ‘Apeshit’ is all about bodies – an orchestrated contrast of energetically writhing and animated black physiques set against frozen white forms of the past. It is about establishing a new order in which black bodies seize and command cultural and physical spaces from which they have traditionally been excluded and are typically marginalized. It’s about arrival and survival through declaration of one’s hard-earned position in society. Perhaps most important and timely is that ‘Apeshit’ is a video that begs contemplation in the context of recent incidents (the case in April of two black men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for ‘trespassing’ while waiting for a business meeting comes to mind) in which the presence of black bodies in public spaces has raised paranoid fears among some white people about dark bodies and their claim to those spaces.
By packaging and selling their version of blackness, black bodies, and black culture, the Carters have asserted their right (and, by extension, the right of all black people) to do so while at the same time exploiting to their advantage the very culture that has, for so long, excluded people like them. They are not the first, however, to draw from Western art and art history or to use recognizable art locations to make a statement about access and power. They are playing on a recent trend by several contemporary black artists, such as the African-American portrait painter, Kehinde Wiley, to strategically mine aspects of European art and art history as a means to harness a bold and confident insertion and assertion of a black presence, insistence on global recognition, and commercial gain.
Where the empowerment and critique of black bodies is concerned, there are a couple of critical juxtapositions highlighted in the ‘Apeshit’ video that are worth mentioning. Although the majority of the paintings and sculptures found in the Louvre are devoid of black bodies, there are a few works in which a black presence is clear and exploited accordingly. For example, at one of several intervals of the repeated refrain ‘I can’t believe we made it,’ the camera pans across Théodore Géricault’s epic painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819). This gargantuan canvas contains three black men among the human debris who are used emblematically by the artist to relay the story of a human tragedy. The most visible black figure is located at the apex of the composition. He is energetic and heroic in his display of a muscular back. It is Jay-Z who is shown in front of this painting and, at one brief moment, is caught gazing up at the black Hercules who constitutes the focal point of the drama and symbolizes black people as both survivors and saviours.
Of all the art works appropriated, the only one that is most significant to Beyoncé’s strategic manipulation of the bodily presence and absence of black women is Marie Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress (1800), a highly complex painting with many things happening in it across the realms of politics, race, gender, class, and strategies of looking and being looked at. I retain here the original title as translated from the French in which the designated term négresse is used rather than the more politically correct femme noire (black woman).
Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress was painted six years after the French had (temporarily) abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies and just two years before Napoleon was to reinstate it. The artist, a white female painter of social and financial means, shows a black woman who was technically classified as a slave, but, upon arrival on French soil became a registered servant. As such, she had little say in how she was represented. The work is a subtle and ineffective commentary by Benoist on the deplorable condition and treatment of women and black slaves at the beginning of the 19th century, linking the two concerns. The portrait ultimately strips the black sitter of her identity and yet contains visual cues (in the protective gesture of her left hand) that suggest that the subject attempts some agency given her situation. It is an unusual portrait in that at the time it was painted, blacks were considered ugly and not deemed worthy of depiction as subjects of European high art. It is also one of the few works of art during the period to showcase a black person as the sole subject and object of a highly finished work of art – that is, not part of a study for a larger composition, nor is she placed in a subservient position within an expanded narrative, as was typically the case.
Portrait of a Negress was created in a specific context relevant to a particular historical moment. Forgetting or dismissing its original setting opens the door to all kinds of ambiguity, of which Beyoncé has taken full advantage. Curiously, the portrait is featured near the end of the ‘Apeshit’ video, presented in isolation and not directly visually paired with Beyoncé. The black woman has been, however, manipulated so that she is disembodied (depicted only from the neck up), with the camera lingering solely on her dark complexion and facial expression. Her torso, with its draped cloth and exposed breast, has been kidnapped and re-assigned to the visible body of Beyoncé. Although a slave/servant, the ‘negress’ has, by virtue of her unique presence in Western art, attained a degree of nobility in that she holds her own as an independent black presence among all the other paintings in the Louvre. It is for this reason, as one commentator has claimed, that the black woman is ‘one of the only figures in the Louvre that we don’t see get reinterpreted…[t]he only figure…that can withstand the unstoppable force that is Beyoncé, that does not need to be remade and reexamined.’ Given the painting’s clear racial presence, however, the portrait has been reinterpreted and does have to be reexamined. The ‘negress’ has, in fact, been upstaged by Beyoncé’s bodily presence and star power.
Beyoncé has made highly selective corporeal and cultural choices in order to deliver a powerful message about her own hard-won and well-deserved place and power in the world. Her body and that of the other women in the video is sexualized by way of sensuous movement, revealing clothing, glimpses of bulging bustlines and beckoning cleavages. By eliminating the body of the black woman in Benoist’s portrait, Beyoncé has demonstrated her power to sexualize her own and other black women’s bodies when and if she chooses, affording her and her black female entourage a lot more agency and control over their bodies than that of a slave.
The ‘Apeshit’ video provides visual and musical testimony to the Carters in full control of their public presence. Although the video appropriates and recontextualizes Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress in ways that alter a more accurate understanding of the painting’s original history and signification, rendering it ambiguous, it does not diminish the potency of the Carters’s contemporary message: that we all have gone and perhaps will continue to go Apeshit over race, art, culture and power for some time to come.
Main image: Beyoncé and Jay-Z, ‘Apeshit’, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists
James Smalls is Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, US. He is the author of Homosexuality in Art (Parkstone Press, 2003) and The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (2006), and his essays have appeared in major journals including American Art, French Historical Studies, Third Text, Art Journal, and Art Criticism.