The video of the song Apes**t by Beyoncé and Jay Z revives the conversation about slavery and its legacies. The song is part of the couple’s new joint album as the Carters. Far from the United States, the Carters occupied the Louvre Museum, one of the most important art museums in the world and greatest symbol of high white culture, to address the persisting heritage of the Atlantic slave trade.
The stage of Apes**t was carefully selected. The Louvre Museum was created at the end of the eighteenth century during the summit of the Atlantic slave trade. This was also a troubling period in France’s history. The French Revolution swept the monarchy, spreading change across the Atlantic world.
Conceived to house French royal collections, the Louvre displayed paintings produced by European artists. Upon its inception, its visitors were French elite members. Its walls only displayed the works of selected prominent artists. Very few black subjects are portrayed in the paintings hang on the Louvre’s walls. Obviously, still today black artists rarely have their works exhibited in the Louvre. Apes**ts‘svideo puts this system upside down. Appropriating the iconic western museum, the video is in dialogue with the acclaimed scene of Marvel’s film Black Panther, when Killmonger reclaims a Wakanda’s artifact on display in a fictive major western museum. Intentionally or not (it doesn’t matter), through the work of the video director, Beyoncé and Jay Z give a wink to the actions led by the movement Decolonize this Place.
The opening scene of Apes**t shows the Carters posing with one of the greatest icons of Western art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa (1503). In reality, no ordinary visitor to the Louvre can stand alone in front of this painting, always surrounded by crowds of hunger tourists pointing their smartphone cameras to capture the best image. Beyoncé and Jay Z are the privileged viewers in this setting, a position confirmed in the lyrics of the song: “I can’t believe we made it, This is what we’re thankful for.”
With their monumental bodies, filmed in low angle shots at one of Louvre’s marble staircases, the Carters and a group of black dancers wearing “nude” costumes dance in front of the marble sculpture The Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC). The Carters and the video’s black performers conquer a space that was not conceived to be occupied by black subjects. Yet, sometimes these bodies are alive and moving, sometimes they rather look like immobile corpses.
Evoking life and death, one of the first scenes of Apes**t shows Baroque and Renaissance angels decorating the ceilings of the Louvre, while outside the building a very human black angel is crouching on the ground. Apes**t is a celebration of African American achievement, but at the same time the video mocks the meaning of material wealth and symbolic distinction (also embraced by the Carters) in a world where black men and women are the daily victims of lethal racism.
The video returns a few times to the motive of black motherhood. One scene showcases details of the painting Pietá (1537-1540) by Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), associating the bodies of black young men with the suffering body of the crucified Christ, a motive that often appears in a number of later works depicting slavery, especially in the nineteenth century.
Apes**t continues with numerous references to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. And Napoléon Bonaparte is no stranger to this tragic history. The French Revolution storm fueled the Revolution of Saint-Domingue (1792-1804) that by the time was the richest French colony in the Americas. The insurrection led by slaves and former slaves pushed the French Convention to abolish slavery in 1794. But freedom was short-lived.
In 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte led a coup d’état, by becoming the First Consul. The connections between Bonaparte and slavery are clear: in 1802, he reestablished slavery in the French colonies. The Revolution of Saint-Domingue was eventually successful. In 1804, the rebels abolished slavery in the colony and made it the first independent black nation, now named Haiti. At the end of that year, Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, becoming Napoléon I. Apes**t features The Consecration of Napoleon (Le Sacre de Napoléon) (1805-1807) by the prominent neoclassic French painter Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). The painting portrays the coronation, by also featuring the Empress Joséphine. Although Napoléon’s rule ended in 1815, slavery continued alive in the remaining French colonies until 1848.
David’s painting is the background for Queen Bey and her team of performers dancing performance. They are now part of this painting. By conquering Europe and the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay Z place themselves in the same lineage of black men and women who fought for freedom in Saint-Domingue, and who became kings and queens, such as Henry Christophe (1767-1820), crowned King Henry I and his wife Marie-Louise Coidavid (1778-1851). The couple also flirts with Afrocentrism. They pose with the Great Sphinx of Tanis (ca. 2600 BC), a giant statue associated with the pharaohs Ammemes II (12th Dynasty, 1929-1895 BC), Mernpetah (19th Dynasty, 1212-02 BC) and Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty, 945-24 BC). Taking an Afrocentric stance, the Carters connect themselves to the cradle of (black) civilization. They are as black emperors of world popular culture performing in the temple of high white culture.
Apes**t also engages with the slave past by showing two other French paintings.
The first painting is The Raft of the Medusa (Le Rafle de la Méduse) (1819) by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). An icon of French Romanticism, the painting depicts the wreck of the French frigate Medusa, occurred in 1816, just after the restoration of Bourbon dynasty that followed the fall of Napoleon. The Medusa was sent to Senegal to confirm the authority of King Louis XVIII over the colony just ceded to France. Carrying 392 men on board, the ship wrecked on the Senegalese coast. The tragedy happened during the period of the illegal slave trade in this part of the West African coast. During thirteen days, its passengers fought to survive. The dramatic painting portrays a small group of survivors on a raft. Among them, three black men occupy featured positions. Géricault’s painting is considered a manifesto for the abolition of slavery when the institution still existed in French colonies in the Americas and Africa.
The video also displays another painting, Portrait of a Negress (Portrait d’une Négresse) (1800), by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), a student of David. The painting is among the very few French paintings depicting a black woman as its main subject. In a period when very few women were well-established artists, the painted portrait is also among the few works authored by a woman that made it to the Louvre. Nameless, the model was probably a domestic servant. Although the naked breast evokes an exotic image of black womanhood, the model is wearing fine clothes and is portrayed in a dignified position.
Apes**t greatly contrasts with the recent video of the song This is America by Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino). Unlike Glover, the Carters chose to emphasize black splendor, to show the legacies of slavery through the dramatic beauty of black bodies, dead or alive. By occupying the Louvre, they draw a line between the absence of black subjects in western painting and art institutions and the persisting racial violence that ravages not only the United States, but also France and other areas of the African diaspora. To accomplish this project, the creators of the video chose the Louvre Museum, and this is very significant. In the US context, France and French art remain symbols of high culture and sophistication. For many African Americans, slavery and racism seem to be far away from France’s reality. But as the couple immersed in the Louvre’s collections, slavery and race resurfaced once again. Yet, from now on white spaces such as the Louvre can no longer survive without acknowledging how much they owe to the black and brown bodies that allow them to exist.
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