Words By: Calvin Reedy
On Saturday, a few days before Juneteenth, Beyoncé stopped the world, per usual. Her and Jay Z are in the midst of giving the world a second iteration of their On The Run tour, and on Saturday, they dropped their surprise joint-album along with a video. The album functions as the couple’s ode to their life together, returning again and again to the wealth they’ve amassed, the empire they’ve built. The couple and their dancers shut down the Louvre to film their “Apeshit” video, directed by Ricky Saiz, with Jenn Nkiru also in the credits. In it, they took the art selfie to a new level with some rich and elegantly composed scenes that integrated some of the museum’s, and the world’s, most beloved works of art. The work as a whole functions as a dramatic re-working and re-claiming - a Blackening, perhaps - of a white colonial space by inserting a sort of universal blackness. It’s worth looking at the multiple implications of the work and how it functions, and what it says about the historically contentious relationship between Black people and museums.
I started to consume Beyoncé’s work differently after she released Lemonade. I always respected her as a musician and performer, with unmatched vocals and a musical sensibility lacking in a lot of other pop stars. I realized that she was aware of how her work would fit into not only the historical canon of popular music, but how her imagery would fit into the canon of art history, and visual culture at large. Lemonade was monumental. It included references to the Oshun, Yoruba traditions, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the story of the Igbo Landing, pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia, afrofuturism, and more. She basically invented the visual album with her self-titled 2013 release, then she re-invented it. For me, Lemonade moved Beyoncé from a musical genius, to a pure artistic genius. Beyoncé was different after that, everything she did was somehow even more intentional. Her pregnancy announcement portraits, made by Awol Erizku, fashioned her as the Mother Mary and Venus at the same time. She performed at the Grammys, pregnant with twins, dripping in gold, channeling both the Black Madonna and the Hindu goddess, Durga. The performance looked like a scene from the Renaissance filled with Black women. In her coachella performance, she managed to restructure her entire oeuvre, performing it anew while placing Southern Black culture and HBCUs on the same level as ancient Egypt and Cleopatra. Beyoncé’s genius and artistic sensibility is unquestionable; her ability to move, shape, and create culture is astounding.
The Apeshit video is a perfectly executed work. The references are on-brand for the Carters, and expected of them at this point. They put themselves in direct conversation with works across millennia of art history, and craft scenes that riff off the work contemporary Black artists. It begins with the toll of a bell and a winged Black man squatting outside the museum, perhaps a gargoyle, perhaps a fallen angel. We are already given a sense that something far out of the ordinary is about to occur, a conjuring of sorts. What ensues is essentially a takeover of the Louvre. We get detail shots of the Gallerie d’Apollon and a host of paintings that depict, battles, suffering, triumph, and celebration. In the beginning and end of the video, the Carters are featured standing side by side with the Mona Lisa (1503). They gleam in white in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 B.C.), dancers laying on the stairs below them, while Beyoncé’s lavish dress mimics the folds on that of the statue. They stand firmly in front of Venus de Milo (101 B.C.) and The Great Sphinx of Tanis (ca. 2600 BC). Beyoncé is centered and in-sync with a line of dancers, all impossibly moving like water, in front of Jacques-Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon (1805-07). Jay Z raps in front of The Raft of Medusa (1818–19) and in front of the Louvre’s famed glass pyramid. Dancers undulate and jump in groups through the museum’s cavernous halls. It is clear that the Carters are likening themselves to great rulers of history - people with empires - people and beings both real and mythical whose beauty, power, and triumphs we have looked to for centuries. They are not only standing by all of these works, they are standing in for them. All the while, they bring their people with them.
One of the most poignant moments in the video is soon before the midway point. The music cuts out to a scene of two dancers sitting opposite each other on the floor, their heads donned with long, white, veil-like durags. On the wall behind them is David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier, a painting of Juliette Récamier, one of France’s most famous socialites in a cream-colored dress, gazing at the viewer and reclining on a récamier. The pose of the dancers mimics the récamier, and their durags mimic Récamier’s dress. The durags are similar to the dramatically long one Solange doned to the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” themed gala, with the phrase “My God Wears a Durag” printed in gold gothic font at the bottom. The durag is an item that visual artist John Edmonds often focuses on in his tender and intimate portraits of Black men. In them, the object is a signifier of the aesthetics and practices of Black beauty. He sees the durag as something that elevates the person wearing it to a certain level of sainthood or royalty - Edmonds looks at the durag as a crown.
Deana Lawson, another Black contemporary artist, is referenced in multiple moments throughout the video. Lawson is a photographer who travels to Black communities around the world, focusing on the seemingly-universal aesthetics of Black life, specifically pertaining to the fashioning of the self and the semiotics of Black interior spaces. Her portraits are hyper-staged scenes of Black love and relationships, and she often poses strangers or acquaintances to look like lovers or family members. The first reference to Lawson is when the music is still cut out, and we see a Black couple gently intertwined atop a bed. The scene is strikingly similar to that of Lawson’s 2009 photograph, Binky & Tony Forever, which served as the album cover for Bloodorange’s “Freetown Sound” album released in 2016. The second reference to Lawson comes after the song has resumed itself. We see a shot of Géricault’s The Charging Chasseur, and immediately following, are transported to an outdoor night-time scene of a Black cowboy standing atop a horse against a forested background. A clear nod to Lawson’s Cowboys photograph from 2014. The final reference to Lawson comes near the end of the video. Two of the dancers are seen in front of the Mona Lisa, a shirtless man seated while a woman combs his hair with an afro pick. The afro pick has a clenched fist at its end. A private and intimate ritual of Black beauty, performed in public, and of all places, in front of one of the most visited paintings in the entire world. As some people have already pointed out, the image nods to Lawson’s style, but also references one of the photographs from Carrie Mae Weems’s famed Kitchen Table Series from 1990.
1. A still from "Apeshit."
2. Deana Lawson, Binky & Tony Forever, 2009. Image courtesy of Artsy.
3. A still from "Apeshit."
4. Deana Lawson, Cowboys, 2014. Image courtesy of Artsy.
In 2006, Weems produced a black-and-white body of work entitled, Museums, in which she was photographed from behind in a long black dress, standing outside of museums that many recognize as some of the greatest institutions of the West. One of them, was of course, the Louvre. The series eerily and poetically grapples with the relationship between Black women, particularly Black women artists, and museums. Black women have historically been excluded from Western art and its history in multiple ways. They’ve been excluded and disrespected as artists, shunned from participating in the discourse around art, and kept out of positions of power that decide which artists get supported by institutions, and what work is shown on their walls. Through all of this, it is difficult to come across authentic depictions of Black people - especially Black women - in Western art, especially in institutions like the Louvre. Weems herself had a retrospective organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. When it traveled to New York’s Guggenheim Foundation in 2014, they had nearly cut the show in half, and instead of displaying it in their monumental rotunda, exhibited the works in two auxiliary galleries on different floors. I was thirty-seconds into watching the Carters take ownership of the Louvre, and I couldn’t get the image of Weems standing outside of the Louvre out of my head.
I spent the second half of my junior year of college studying at an art school in Paris. I was thrilled to take a break from my small liberal arts school in Maine to go live in one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cosmopolitan centers. I was also excited about the free museum admission I’d get in Paris and other European cities. I frequented the Louvre because I felt obligated to do it justice while I was there, but eventually found it to be one of the most overwhelming spots in the city. First of all, it’s absolutely massive. If you want to see it all, you need to take several trips. Second, it’s incredibly crowded. The gallery with the Mona Lisa is perpetually full of tourists, most of them with their backs to the work and selfie sticks in the air while they get an image of themselves amongst a sea of heads overlooked by the work’s fleeting gaze. What became the most overwhelming to me about the Louvre was realizing just how white it is. At this point in my education, it was already very clear to me that the focus had been and would be primarily on white male artists. I expected no different from the Louvre, a bastion of Western art history, but seeing it with my own eyes on such a massive scale made my feelings all the more palpable. There is a particular type of violence and erasure that comes with feeling so severely unseen with such a seriality. Still, I would end up in the Louvre wanting to see it all, wanting to get excited about seeing works I had studied, but I always ended up desperately searching for an image - any image - of a Black person in their halls upon halls of western art.
Occasionally, I would find a few Black people relegated to the background of paintings or the side of the frame, almost always in a position of servitude to the main subject, and almost always unnamed. There are very few works in the Louvre that feature Black people as the center of attention, the only subject, like Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress from 1800. This is a work I got excited about from afar. Then I read the title, she was just a negress. Her name and who she was in the world did not go with her to the Louvre. I appreciated her steady gaze, but I was frustrated that she, of all the people painted in the Louvre, had to have her breast out. Did she actually have any agency in this process of being painted, in her relationship to the painter? What does this image do for Black people, for Black women? There I was, one of the few young Black men wandering the Louvre after class, in a gallery filled with a lot of living white people looking at a lot of portraits of dead white people with names, and histories, and dignity, while I was grappling with this portrait of an unnamed Black woman.
I was taken aback by the prominent feature of Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress within the last thirty seconds of the video. This time, her breast is cropped out, the Carters perhaps posthumously granting her a bit more agency. Upon seeing it, I was reminded immediately of how I felt each time I went to the Louvre, struggling to find what to do with the little representation we have there and in Western institutions at large. I thought of Carrie Mae Weems standing outside the Louvre pyramid. Fritz Henle’s Cleaning Woman in MoMA from the 1950s. I thought of The fact that most of the Black people I see in the galleries of American museums are neither in the works on the wall nor looking at them as visitors, they are guarding them. The fact that I spent last summer interning with curators at the Whitney Museum, and one of my favorite staff members there was a museum guard, Vincent Punch. In addition to guarding the art, he photographs it and captures how visitors engage with it for his Instagram. If not for the art world’s historical exclusion of Black people, could he have become an artist with work in the Whitney’s collection? Could he have become one of the curators I worked with?
The video ends by returning to the Carters in their power suits and jewelry standing in front of the Mona Lisa. They look at us, they look at each other, then they turn to look up at the Mona Lisa. By fashioning the Louvre as a space that belongs to them, they are saying, this space is ours now, you are welcome here, come and look. By contextualizing blackness in this space, they are saying that our culture, our art, is on the same level as the high art of the Louvre. A huge part of me felt like the Carters had given us imagery that we didn’t know we needed, imagery we never thought would exist. At the same time, I had questions. does inserting Black bodies in a colonial, anti-black space for a performance such as this somehow cancel out or correct the historical subjection of Black people by those spaces, or is the subjection somehow doubled? Is it revolutionary because the artists who brought the bodies are Black themselves? In 2018, do we still need to use these spaces as our highest standard? Do we still need these spaces when we've built our own? After watching the video several times, I was reminded that any engagement with art while Black - as a maker or viewer - is full of dichotomies, and often discomfort. In the end, we should do it anyway.
Calvin Reedy is an artist and curator-in-training based out of Brooklyn, ny. Catch him at @creedygram.