The Carters’ APESHIT gave me a glimpse of the postcolonial museum

By Hardeep Dhindsa

16 June 2018. The Carters released their album, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, the cover of which was taken from the music video for APESHIT – already a sign that the single would come to represent something bigger than itself. We see two of Beyoncé’s backup dancers: Jasmine Harper is picking the hair of Nicholas ‘Slick’ Stewart in front of the Mona Lisa, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The image sparked hundreds of conversations about the significance of two Black people sharing a tender and everyday moment in one of the most instantly recognisable public spaces in the world. And while I’m hardly the first person of colour who recognised this music video as a moment that redefined – and reasserted – non-White identity in the playgrounds of white cultural identity, for me, a Brown person who studies Art History and Classics – two elite, majority-white academic disciplines – the image and the accompanying music video it came from were a middle finger to the institutional racism plaguing these fields and showed me why I belong here and the communities we share within them. This blog post is split into two sections: the first identifies my own proximity to the music video and highlights the institutional racism museum workers of colour must face every day, and the second discusses the music video itself and the symbolism attached to it. I have written this piece from the perspective of a non-Black person of colour, who has experienced racism while working in museums; where I position the music video and the Carters’ careers alongside other elements from Black cultural history, I have provided reference to analysis by Black critics and scholars who have made such comparisons previously.

***

After I watched the video for the first time my mind was left racing. I re-watched it at least 3 more times to soak it all in, what ‘it’ was I didn’t know. Eventually I realised that my emotional attachment to the video was so strong because this was my dream as a classicist. The APESHIT video was a tangible image of what I pictured the future of Classics to be: people of colour engaging with a past that was forcefully taken from them, living and breathing in western institutional spaces with a sense of agency, beyond the superficial act of seeing and scrubbing clean the whitewashed objects of eras past. At its heart, the APESHIT music video embodies a big fear of right-wing western imperialists – that people of colour should have the ability to see themselves in a white cultural space. Beyoncé and Jay Z were not simply spectators at the Louvre, they owned the whole damn place. For the first time in its history, it was owned by Black people. I can’t put into words how much shock and joy that brought me. It is impossible to describe to a white person, who can walk into the Louvres and the Capitoline Museums of the world and see themselves reflected in the collections. We, as people of colour, can appreciate the beauty in a Caravaggio or a Rubens, but we know that we are barred from identifying ourselves aesthetically with the white figures in these institutions.

These places are beacons of white supremacy, they were made by white people for white people and represent imperial power in an aggressive, expansionist way. For that ideology to work, I and others like me have to be structurally excluded from it. Throughout my time as an art historian and a classicist, I have always been shunned for being an outsider and my desire to decolonise these fields did nothing to help that. When my research focussed on fountains in Rome and papal propaganda I was met with sceptical acceptance, nobody was willing to put me on a pedestal but nobody chucked me out either; it was a lonely experience where white people gave me some space as long as I stayed out of sight. When I moved onto whitewashing and postcolonialism, I was promptly thrown out. I was a liability that threatened the very roots of the West and no matter how hard I tried, very few people were willing to engage with what I was trying to say. That is why APESHIT was jaw-dropping. The Carters swiped their cards and forcefully inserted themselves into that canon of art history that I have always felt excluded from. They didn’t ask, they didn’t explain, they just did it. It taught me that I didn’t need the permission of white people to become a classicist, I’m allowed to take control and I don’t need to apologise for it. When I saw Beyoncé standing there like the Nike of Samothrace, I laughed out loud because it was so painfully obvious that she had every right to be there and she was Nike – everything about Beyoncé standing in Louvre was a victory for Black women and anybody else who saw a part of themselves in her.

Perhaps my emotional attachment to APESHIT – and this subsequent analysis – wouldn’t be so pronounced had I not worked in a gallery for over a year. It wasn’t the fancy Sotheby’s internship that the Old Boys’ Club would do; I worked in retail and ticketing towards the end of my undergraduate degree and for the entire duration of my postgraduate degree. I wasn’t secluded from the main goings-on in the gallery, though. My job included front-of-house work for every exhibition, and the shop I most often worked at was directly in the middle of one of the major rooms, so my interactions with both the art and the public stayed at 100 the whole time I was there. I was the only person of colour on the retail team, and I was one of two people of colour in the entire gallery. Yes, the entire (national, tax-payer funded) gallery, from security, to retail, to curation etc. While I was there I learned a lot about who has access to the canon of art history, not from the staff, but from the public. It was not unusual for visitors to ask me or nearby security staff – many of whom, like me, were students knowledgeable in art history – questions about the artwork. These ranged from stylistic questions (why are Titian’s brushstrokes so broad?) to more general questions about the rooms they were in (did all of these artists know each other?). I’d like to flatter myself in thinking that I was generally more knowledgeable than my colleagues on Italian art, since not only was it my academic focus at the time but also my colleagues tended to study later periods.

As I worked I would notice that I was always the last resort for these questions. The reactions to my detailed and engaging answers, always delivered with my customer-service voice and smile, were varied. About half the time, people would say thank you and move on, or ask some follow up questions and strike up a conversation with me. The other half of the time, however, the visitors’ reaction ranged from polite indifference to outright shock that I, a brown guy, could give a textbook-like analysis of a da Vinci or a Botticelli.

I remember one example vividly. I was staring into space at a Guercino painting (which one I won’t say because I don’t want to name the gallery) and a middle-aged lady came up to me to inquire about some postcards:

“Could you tell me where this painting is?”

“It’s actually not here at the moment, but it should be returning in a few months. I can point you to other works by this artist we currently have on display, they’re in the next room.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I work here and I really like X’s paintings,” I said with a polite laugh.

“You’re telling me you can identify X’s paintings by just looking at them?”

“If I looked at it for long enough, I probably could.” My laugh here was more nervous.

“I don’t believe that. How could you know so much about X”

“I don’t understand what you mean?”

“I mean, you obviously have nothing to do with any of the art around here so I’m just surprised that someone like you would bother to understand it.”

This was hardly the worst encounter I had – let’s not talk about the guy who refused to buy a ticket to a Rembrandt exhibition because it was me at the ticketing desk – but it’s the one that stuck with me the most. Here it was plain and simple what other white people were trying to tell me subtly: I’m not supposed to be engaging with western art. Why should I? What could a brown first-generation Brit possibly see in a sixteenth century Italian painting depicting white figures from classical mythology that would make them think ‘wow I can relate to that!’? But I do relate to it. I can’t tell you why, but is that even the point of looking at art in a gallery? We aren’t drawn to art simply because we can tangibly communicate how and why we have decided to look at that particular painting. We will always see a bit of ourselves on an emotional level in every artwork we look at; it triggers a visual sequence that allows us to picture our own abstract concepts of love, loss, fear, and hope. I don’t need to be white to cry in front of a Rothko, or Christian to empathise with Caravaggio’s broken Mary seeing her son lying dead on a rock. These human conditions are not in the exclusive domain of whiteness; yet, somehow, the white western mind has codified them as such. 

***

APESHIT makes full use of the Louvre’s iconic space and features some of the most instantly recognisable artworks in the western canon, all of which the Carters interact with physically and symbolically. So important is the use of these works that the Louvre promoted a guided tour of seventeen artworks featured in the video. I want to highlight some of the most poignant of these, which are masterfully used to carefully critique the institutional world that they have temporarily opened the gates to.

Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace, c.200-190 BCE 

The video’s most frequently-invoked artwork is the Nike of Samothrace, a marble sculpture depicting the winged goddess dramatically landing on the prow of a ship to declare victory, part of the iconic ‘Big Three’ artworks in the Louvre (all of which make their appearance in APESHIT.) Not only is it one of the most celebrated Hellenistic sculptures, but it occupies a central role in the Louvre’s architecture and layout, acting as the pivot that connects all of the surrounding rooms together both physically and symbolically. The sculpture is referenced before we even enter the Louvre; the very first shot of the music video shows a Black man crouching in front of the museum’s iconic facade with white wings sprouting from his back. The allegory of Nike is immediately situated beyond the boundaries of the Louvre and outlines the parameters of agency for the next six minutes: western art as a tool of self-reflection for people of colour. For the rest of the video, the Nike is positioned prominently and Beyoncé mimics it in both form and symbolism. She is seen atop the grand staircase blocking the sculpture from view, instead forcing us to focus on the drapery and dynamism of her own robe. The off-white shade is almost the exact shade of the Nike, contrasted with her brown skin and a hairdo that is not unlike one we find on the Venus de Milo (more on that later). Emphasising the formal differences between Beyoncé and Nike are the dancers below who wear nude bodysuits in a variety of skin tones. It is only the Nike who lacks colour in this frame, a stark reminder of the unnatural reality that the sculpture is currently occupying. It is a whitewashed version of a sculpture that would have been painted in highly-pigmented tones. Thus, Beyoncé uses herself as a medium to re-exhibit the Nike in its original polychromatic form. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503-6

The second of the Big Three, and perhaps the only challenger to the Nike’s visual significance in this music video, is the Mona Lisa. Already visible on the album cover, this is the artwork that almost all of the audience would recognise first; the most expensive painting in the world, the most reproduced, the most mysterious. It is in front of this painting that we see the Carters for the first time, Beyoncé wearing a similar expression to the woman in the painting; we don’t know what we are about to see but she is in on the secret. The conflation of the two puts Beyoncé on the same cultural level as the Mona Lisa and the video situates her as a spectacle in itself. We are watching Beyoncé interact with the museum space as visitors and we have been invited to this exhibition to see the masterpieces of the Louvre, part of which temporarily includes the Carters. The canon of western art was expanded to include the Carters, and they neither shy away from this elevation of status, nor do they promote it. It is an unapologetic acceptance of two Black people framing themselves among these masterpieces. The connotations that the Mona Lisa holds, in terms of power, beauty, and value, makes it the perfect vehicle to challenge these white cultural institutions, and Beyoncé is only one of many Black people to understand that.

Venus de Milo, c.130-100 BCE

Rounding off the Big Three is the Venus de Milo, which doesn’t have as much screen time as its counterparts, but still speaks volumes about whiteness in the museum. Depicting the goddess of love, the sculpture has been used numerously to stand as a metaphor of the male gaze, the embodiment of beauty, and, as Femen activists used it, violence against women due to the lack of arms. The scenes with the Venus de Milo show the room bathed in a neon blue light, with Beyoncé subtly mimicking the S-curve of the sculpture, emphasising the lines of her body. It is not the first time she has stood in place of the goddess. We see the Venus de Milo appear in the music video for Get Me Bodied – which also juxtaposes Beyoncé’s movement with the stillness of the statue (thank you to Vanessa Stovall for pointing out this reference to me!). In both her record-breaking pregnancy and maternity photo reveals, imagery from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485-6) is taken to create striking visual effects, and she even had sounds from the planet featuring in the trailer for LEMONADE. It is not only Beyoncé who occupies this space in the music video. At various intervals, we see her Black backup dancers silhouetted on pedestals as if placed by the Louvre’s curators themselves, radically embodying the original icon of white beauty. The relationship between Venus and Black beauty is messy and complicated. While white women have compared themselves to Venus over the centuries, it was specifically through a white gaze that they could engage with the goddess herself. Black women, however, had their agency removed and were prescribed a Venus of different standards, much lower than her white counterpart. As the freakshow exhibits displaying Saartje Bartmann – who was called the Hottentot Venus – show, the image of Blackness and what Black beauty was allowed to be was entirely different from the white Venus. The beauty of Black women was always viewed under the colonial lens to both dehumanise and fetishise them, promoting them as images of hypersexual beings, unable to reach the ‘classical beauty’ that is the Venus de Milo. Beyoncé’s discography does not shy away from this debate: she unapologetically celebrates the beauty of black skin in several of her songs and videos, notably in Brown Skin Girl

Théodore, Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-9

Perhaps one of the lesser known paintings in the visual syntax of APESHIT, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa only makes its first appearance halfway through the video. It is obscured at first – we only see extreme close ups of the figures before Jay Z is revealed to be standing in front of it. The Carters’ choice in painting, however, is hardly coincidental. It depicts a contemporary shipwreck in the midst of France’s imperial campaigns in Africa: the Medusa, en route to colonise Senegal, was run onto a sandbank and because of the lack of lifeboats, 150 crewmembers were forced to construct a lifeboat that only saved 10 of them. Gericault’s depiction is one of vain hope, the crowded characters claw over each other to attract the attention of a rescue boat sailing away. We know the figures are going to die soon. The composition fights towards its focal point, a lone Black man elevated above everybody else. Though controversial at the time, Gericault’s inclusion of a (possibly) Senegalese man was a reflection of his abolitionist stance, with some critics believing the painting was to be displayed in London to coincide with growing protests in Britain. The close up of this man, contrasted with Jay Z rapping in ‘expensive fabrics’, signals both the Black struggle against white European colonisation and its legacy, and the importance of the Carters’ appearance in the Louvre. Black people are no longer subject to hide on the canvases on the wall, stripped of all agency, but can take centre stage in contemporary engagement of cultural spaces. This is not the first time that the Carters’ have used a shipwreck highlighting the plight of Black people; in Love Drought, a song from Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, one scene directly references the mass suicide at Igbo Landing when the Igbo people took control of their slave ship, which has since become an important symbol of resistance.

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-7 

Mirroring Jay Z’s rap in front of the Medusa, Beyonce and her dancers have several synchronised scenes in front of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. The painting is a masterclass in fashioning the self, and boldly reflects the confidence and opulence of the Carters’ Louvre residency. Aside from the obvious connections between the crowning of Napoleon and the royal imagery used by both artists in their respective careers, it is a call for power through one’s own agency: in the original sketch for the painting, Napoleon is seen crowning himself as opposed to Napoleon crowning his wife. Pope Pius VII sits behind him, rendered utterly irrelevant to the proceedings. It’s a monumental (in the symbolic and physical sense) rebuttal to rigid establishments. Yet the Carters’ are quick not to celebrate the figure of Napoleon himself, who was a rampant imperialist. His military campaigns in Egypt saw the looting of thousands of objects and the death of many more. In APESHIT, we see the Great Sphinx of Tanis (a sphinx from the 26th century BCE), which was discovered after Napoleon’s invasion, standing as a reminder of the genocide that lurks under the floorboards of the Louvre, as well as every major museum in the western world. I’m reminded of Gerome’s Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886), and this music video avoids the trap of monumentalising artwork for its opulence but ignoring the political subcurrents under which the work was obtained. There is added political complexity through the appearance of Beyoncé, whose mother is Louisiana Creole, dancing in front of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, who was born to a wealthy white Creole family in the Caribbean. Through her presence in the Louvre, she forcefully removes the spotlight from someone who profited from the slave trade, and crowns herself in Josephine’s place.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of a Black Woman, 1800

One of the few artworks that are exhibited alone, not as background imagery to Carters but as something to be engaged with privately, is Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman. It is also one of the very few paintings from its time depicting a Black woman who is not enslaved – slavery had technically been abolished a few years prior in France so don’t cut too much slack for Benoist. The shot of the painting is only of the top half: the Carters chose not to reveal the figure’s exposed breast, perhaps in an attempt to disrupt the colonial gaze that saw Black women for their sexual capabilities. Their bodies are allowed a small space in the canon of western art, but only under the agency of whiteness. The headdress the figure wears is referenced at numerous points in the video, placing her Blackness beyond the canvas to inhabit other spaces of the Louvre. We see this around two minutes in, when two Black women are seated in front of David’s Madame Récamier (1800), in the nude apart from a white headdress that connects them, the opposite of the painting behind them. Beyoncé even wears a dark headdress in front of the Venus de Milo, emphasising her own beauty that usurps the goddess. The painting is also the last to make an appearance, offering a poignant reminder that whiteness is embedded at every level of it, and while we can enjoy these paintings in the background of the video it is a rare moment when Black people can see themselves represented on the walls of white cultural institutions, one that cannot be taken for granted.

These conflicts between whiteness and visual history have since seeped into my relationship with Classics. Classical art – as broad a term as that is – has been retroactively inherited by the western world as the precursor to their later greatness, and the museum is a testament to that. Gone are the complex relationships between the Greek world and the Near East and Africa; the beautiful (whitewashed) statues that we have come to appreciate sit forcibly removed from their cultural context. Artworks made only a few hundred kilometres apart, with the same materials from the same traders, sit on opposite sides of the museum, simply because they were made in two continents whose relationship was severed in later centuries. Ancient Greek and Roman art is elevated to the highest position of the western canon, far from the reach of non-White hands. The Carters bring that pedestal down and re-emphasise the complex relationship between art, the production of white knowledge systems, and non-western identity. When Beyoncé overshadows the Nike of Samothrace, this is a stark visual reminder that the statue wasn’t white, that its current form is a product of centuries of whitewashing and codifying cultural hierarchies. It’s a moment that reasserts the space for their self-identification in these artworks, contrasted poignantly with a lingering shot of Portrait of a Black Woman and the miniscule Black figures in Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana, one of the few closeups of art we see in the video. It offers a clear rebuttal against the white idea that they can only self-identify with western art where the parameters of identity and agency are demarcated by the white hand. What I see is the Carters simultaneously emphasising the absence of Black people on the walls of the Louvre outside of a western imperial context and using it to juxtapose what white people want them to identify with against what they are barred from.

What the Carters highlight to us is the opportunity to use art as a vehicle of hope and come to terms with the self outside of the shackles imposed by white hands. When I see Victorian paintings that depict Indian people, I don’t want to identify with that art the way white people expect me to. Beyond the superficial application of paint, what is a brown man painted by a white man to me? The white man – and let’s be real, most of these artists were white men – infused his image of the Other with his own ideas about who that was. I am not the image of what a white man made me out to be and I exist outside of that space. For the artist, and white imperialist society as a whole, his very existence relies on this codification of who I am, and in a white cultural space I am expected to adhere to this prescribed identity. To see Beyoncé and Jay Z break such an unspoken rule was a cultural reset that not only highlighted the instability of white identity, but also offered a new rule book on how people of colour could engage with art outside of the white bubble. They didn’t just give us a seat at the table; they made a new one and tossed the old white one out the window.

Hardeep Dhindsa is a current doctoral student at King’s College London. His research explores whiteness, empire, and Classics in eighteenth-century British art. On the side he is an illustrator, recolouring whitewashed sculptures to disrupt the images we see in museums today – he also designed the artwork for this blogpost. Follow him on Twitter (@_HardeepDhindsa) and visit his Redbubble store.

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