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In an 1800 painting titled “Portrait d’une femme noir,” an unknown black woman sits for artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist. (The painting’s name means “Portrait of a Black Woman,” or “Portrait of a Negress.”)
She is adorned in what appears to be a white sheath; one of her breasts is bare. She has a white scarf wrapped around her head and a small hoop earring hangs from her ear. One hand is gently placed in her lap while the other lays across her torso. She is aware that she is being looked at, and perhaps less aware of what the final image might look like. Nevertheless, she stares right back at the viewer, as if she is just as much aware of your presence as you are hers.
The portrait is the only selected work that solely features a black subject in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter’s “Apeshit,” the couple’s latest collaborative visual by director Ricky Saiz, which accompanied the surprise release of their duet album Everything Is Love.
The Musée du Louvre, where the video was shot and where “Portrait d’une femme noir” was acquired in 1818, describes Benoist’s depiction of the black woman in the painting as an allegory, perhaps representing the abolishment of slavery in France just six years prior. (Though its subsequent reinstatement should also be noted, as slavery was not fully abolished until 1894 in France.)
Perhaps the Carters have also presented an allegory, in which a hip-hop music video by the industry’s most-coveted couple becomes much more than a pop culture moment, and rather a piece of art on its own terms: one that makes room for critiques of systemic power structures, like entertainment and art itself, which are often muddled with instances of misrepresentation of black people or the lack of representation completely.
The Carters are memorable for a lot of things, including the undeniable control of their narrative. Rarely are their family secrets, or upcoming albums or projects unveiled, and it is often noted that they are keen on having people sign nondisclosure agreements.
In the Louvre, they also appear to be in control — if only for the time that they have rented the space. They perform in front of some of the museum’s most-famed works, such as the “Mona Lisa,” Venus de Milo, and Louvre Pyramid.
But, like the Benoist portrait, this, too, can be allegorical. There is much more beyond the synchronized dance moves, lavish looks styled by the likes of Zerina Akers and June Ambrose, and the subversive act of black bodies performing in front of art depicting predominately white bodies. As the Carters lay claim to the galleries in one of the art world’s most-esteemed institutions, they insert black cultural signifiers not often depicted on such levels of exaltation.
Analyses, such as those outlined here, surrounding Benoist’s painting have been contested. Some have questioned the agency of the black woman subject and whether or not she was exoticized by the artist, her subjugation reified — take, for example, the baring of her breast or the scarf on her head. Others argue for her agency, suggesting that she perhaps was very much in control and aware of her portrayal.
Similarly, the Carters’ “Apeshit,” along with their new album, will be doubtlessly met with dissonance. The Carters stunt in power moves, and it is their power that provides them the opportunity to create such significant cultural moments as this one.
Is this an act of liberation, resistance, revolution? Could it be such when the evidence of capitalism runs through the entirety of the project, from the capacity of the couple to rent the Louvre for a music video (though they are not the first to have rented the museum for creative purposes) to the selected artworks on display?
But do we discredit this moment as if it has no cultural bearings? We shouldn’t.
In one scene, two black women sit in front of “Portrait of Madame Récamier.” White floor-length durags are tied to their heads. In another, Beyoncé stands in front of Venus de Milo in a nude bodysuit with a black headscarf hanging past her hips; she shifts her body from side to side, her arms synchronizing.
The durag, often worn around the heads of black men and women to preserve their hairstyles, has become an indelible emblem of black cultural practice. During chattel slavery, headscarves were used to further the subjugation of black women. Yet, like much of the black cultural production that has been birthed out of their oppression, black people have found ways to make what might seem mundane, sublime.
Today, black artists across industries have incorporated the durag into their creative practice, uplifting it as a sign of black pride and unity. At last month’s Met Gala, Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, wore a lengthy durag emblazoned with the words “My God wears a durag.”
In another scene, Beyoncé stands in front of “The Coronation of Napoleon” in line with a group of black women dancers as they gyrate their bodies. The black woman’s body has often been rendered as out of control, lascivious, dangerous, and deviant, but here, they are completely in control. There is no misinterpreting what they might represent because they represent themselves, summoning movements rooted in African diasporan dances.
And one more scene, also used as the cover art of Everything Is Love, features an unknown black couple in front of the “Mona Lisa.” A man sits while a woman picks out his hair with an Afro pick comb. While “Mona Lisa” has been referenced as an emblem of Eurocentric beauty, here the beauty of black people and all their humanity is placed in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s most-discussed work of art.
A fist emulating the famed hand gesture made popular during the Black Power Era juts from the top of the metal comb; it is as if Beyoncé’s lyrics from the Carters’ single are visualized: “I can’t believe we made it.”
Black people’s existence, their very way of living, is an art form. Thus, “Apeshit” could be argued as an intervention of sorts, whether intentional or not, to offer up an ascension of this notion, of black bodies and black culture.
This year, the Carters skipped the Met Gala, which was themed after the Costume Institute’s newest fashion exhibition, Heavenly Bodies. Yet they have somehow found a way to raise up blackness in the galleries of a historically white institution. In the Carters’ Louvre, to be black is a heavenly act.