When walking down the streets of multicultural cities like Paris or London you see colourful faces. Faces that tell a story from all different kinds of backgrounds, histories of the past, cultures and religions too many to count. Especially Paris and London have been melting pots on a global scale over the last 400 years due to their long and terrible history of colonialism and imperialism. Since then cities have become liberal centres for all cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, religions, to put it simple, cities became spaces for all colours of the world.
All these colours, all these histories have been collected by museums, which you could call houses of knowledge. Yet most museums in London or Paris do not represent all cultural backgrounds of the citizens of that particular city but represent Western Art of the last 5000 years. African Art, especially Egyptian Art, has been claimed by Europeans and North America. They call it, like the other first civilisations of the Middle East, the cradle of humankind and claim it as their own. Most of the time the West fails to remember that these ancient civilisations have a story of their own and are not simply the birth places of the West. But in truth it is the other way round. White culture is simply an extension to what has been there before, its origins lie within Africa and the Middle East, the origins of human culture and art. Yet in the 21st century and before, most of Europe and North America are successfully looking away, being proud of their “Westerness“. Only within the last decades this has been more and more realised by people of the West and this becomes even more relevant when you think about the nationalist rise in Europe and the USA within the last couple of years.
Museums that mostly represent Western Art, whether it is in London, Paris, Berlin or New York City, house some of the greatest artworks of all times with most artists gone quiet and being long dead. Some of the most amazing artworks have unknown artists, most of them were very likely to be of colour, had all sorts of sexual orientations and were male and female.
When I first watched the Apeshit music video by the Carters in 2018, also known as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it immediately spoke to me as a work of art, reclaiming a space for themselves, a place they should be part of, but are overlooked in a Western World every day. Most of my female friends from university in the UK are women of colour and while I studied with them at uni, listened to them, I did feel that in comparison to me, a white, gay man, they had to work harder to be listened to than I was. Because being gay is not a colour you immediately see but being white is one, a privilege you can often forget about when you are not a person of colour. Because the first thing you still see about a person, considering both male and female in the Western World is the skin colour.
And this is where the Apeshit music video comes in. Although, it is a collaboration of two artists, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, I will only focus on Beyoncé’s screen time in the video in this opinion piece, as she is the one that inspired this article and let’s be honest, even if you watch this music video only once, you immediately recognise that this was mostly her work and her story to tell.
So what did she do? Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose the Louvre as the setting for their Apeshit music video, a house of knowledge and art in Paris, a multicultural city in the heart of Europe, in the heart of the West. Throughout the music video there is a clear message: They are reclaiming the Louvre as a place for themselves but above all, it is Beyoncé’s body and her skin colour and the skin colour of her dancers that is essential to her story telling.
The music video opens with a black man, sitting, almost kneeling, outside the Louvre, wearing white angel wings. So the viewer is immediately confronted with the image of a black angel, in his or her head though, thinking it looks strange because every angelic representation of angels in classical art have been white. But of course they are, one might think, why should European painters of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque times paint a black angel? But by opening the video with this shot the viewer is immediately being put on the spot. European Art has been white for centuries, it is imprinted within our consciousness. This image is a reflection of European History and history of art and sets the theme for an epic music video to follow.
The viewer then sees images of a painted Baroque ceiling inside the Louvre, a painted Madonna and scenes of heaven. Then the main melody kicks in and zooms onto Beyoncé and Jay-Z who stand before the most famous portrait of European history: Mona Lisa. More on that later. The setting switches, we are by a marble staircase inside the Louvre. On the stairs lie Beyoncé’s dancers. She and her husband stand on top of the stairs in front a sculpture: The Winged Victory of Samothrace which represents the victory goddess Nike from the 2nd century B.C. Beyoncé wears a white dress in the colour tone of the sculpture, the design of the dress resembles the broken up structure of Nike. Clearly, Beyoncé imitates the sculpture. She is the goddess Nike. She is victorious, she is the statue come to life, she stands strong in the Louvre. Beyoncé starts singing and her dancers (of all dark skin tones), dressed in skin colour bodysuits, start moving to the beats. Images flash by while Beyoncé sings “I can’t believe we made it, this is what we thankful“ setting the theme of the music video: Beyoncé and her dancers claim this white European space for themselves. After everything their generations of women have been through, they are here, in the Louvre, telling their story. More images flash by, one of them is the Baroque ceiling which was shown in the beginning with the word “Virgo“, virgin, clearly visible, hinting to another main theme of the song: The role of the Virgin Mother, Holy Mary. This is underlined by the next scene where you can see Beyoncé dressed in a Versace gown and a headscarf. As she was imitating the image of the goddess of Nike before, now she echoes the Holy Mother Mary.
Another scene unfolds, this time Beyoncé stands in front of the great Sphinx of Tanis which dates back to the old kingdom so it is over 4000 years old. It is one of the greatest treasures of the Louvre and here Beyoncé makes the connection between reclaiming the Western space and drawing a line to the fact that it already belonged to her ancestors from the very beginning of civilisation and that she and every person of colour has always been a part of it. Yet the Western World chose to overlook them for hundreds of years. Ancient Egypt, a civilisation of Africa set the ground rules and discoveries for mathematics, astronomy, architecture, agriculture and of course art. Very often the Western world likes to think that most things we have today, we inherited from civilisations like Ancient Greece or Rome, which is true, but simultaneously, Ancient Egypt was just as important in the founding of our modern cultures. A culture that was African and not European.
The following scene brings us back to modern history. Beyoncé is dancing hand in hand with her Afro- American dancers creating probably the most powerful image of the music video. They perform a beautiful African inspired choreography in front of the massive painting The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine from 1804 by Jacques Louis- David. Here it is essential to know the background story of slavery in France. After the French revolution from 1800 to 1804, slavery was abolished in France, as it was against the spirit of a free France. Yet, it was reinstated by Emperor Napoleon in 1804. Even more important is Beyoncé’s own history from her mother’s side which is French- Creole, dating back to the times when Napoleon III colonised North Africa from 1852 to 1870 and was part of the triangular trade. It was during this time that Beyoncé’s ancestors came to America due to the consequences of French colonialism. By dancing in front of this painting her message becomes an even more powerful one: Dancing defiant. Beyoncé turns colonialism on its head. She and her Afro- American sisters have returned to Paris, the place where their suffering commenced. They dance as an example and to inspire all women of colour. They are glowing with power.
The scene changes again, the viewer sees another very famous painting of the Louvre, The Intervention of the Sabine Women also by Jacques Louis- David. It is a Roman story in which the wife Hersilia stands between her husband and her father and thus ending a battle that would have otherwise ended in death. It is a recognition of a woman’s power as a peacemaker as we know it from Christian religion. Within Christian believe a woman stands for love, peace and fertility like the ultimate example Holy Mary. Here Beyoncé draws another line to history and art. By the interchange of scenes within the video of the Coronation painting and The Intervention of the Sabine Women Beyoncé dances for peace, reminding us how bloody the past has been and how fruitful peace can be. Beyoncé and her dancers are the Sabine women. This also continues the narrative of earlier, when Beyoncé was dressed like the Holy Mary, mother of peace and forgiveness.
As the video speeds up there follows a break of silence where you can only hear bells chiming and the traffic noises of Parisian streets. In this break powerful images build up the tension of the music video. First we see two female dancers of colour with a white cloth around their heads who imitate a painting that is behind them: A white woman in a white dress. The theme continues, they claim the white space for themselves, turning it on its head, literally by not wearing a white dress but by having a white cloth wrapped on their heads like a headscarf.
Then follows another powerful image, a black woman caressing a black man followed by flashing images of a painting in which Jesus is being carefully taken down from the cross by weeping women. Here again, like with the opening, a parallel is drawn between the contrasting depiction of white bodies and black bodies. The woman and the man in the music video reflect on the idea that Jesus might have been black, that the Holy Mary might have been black and again claiming this white European space for themselves. It is especially in these 35 seconds of silence where the entire tension and the theme of the music video is being accumulated. The silence says more than the rest of the video, asking fundamental questions about skin colour and the history of different cultural ideas clashing together. What do you see when there is a familiar image from a different perspective? The entire perspective on the depiction of Western Art is being turned around. The silence speaks for itself.
The video then explodes into Beyoncé’s singing and dancing, followed by a rap by Jay-Z which is also deep in meaning and reflecting on black culture, the black lives matter movement, its history and the Western society, has a deep political tone within, concerning police and gun violence in the USA. A topic that is just as important as the questions and issues about skin colour in Western Art. This important theme would break the fluency of this article though and takes it into another direction, further away from art and its representation. So we follow Beyoncé in the music video where, in the next scene she is holding hands with Jay-Z and standing in front of a new statue, The Venus of Milo by Alexandros of Antiochia from the second century B.C. and one of the most famous works of Hellenistic art. Now Beyoncé wears a skin bodysuit and starts dancing, moving in S curves to the melody of the song. Again Beyoncé imitates the statue. She is the statue come to life. She is the divine goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love and lust. She claims this space for herself.
While the scenes flick between previous ones, a new scene appears, in which an ensemble dancer, Jasmine Harper, performs an expressional Afro- American dance in front of the painting of Mona Lisa. While she is dancing, the scenes flick back and forth again, followed by a Beyoncé and Jay-Z standing in front of Mona Lisa. Beyoncé commences her rap interlude in which she states her supremacy as an artist, singer and multi-millionaire. New scenes and images appear. Jay-Z and Beyoncé are in front of the famous pyramid inside the courtyard of the Louvre. This scene is another extension to the narrative of the origin of art and culture regarding Ancient Egypt. Like two immortal pharaohs, I even dare say like Nofretete and Echnaton, they stand proud and invincible by the glass pyramid. Earlier in that year in 2018 Beyoncé was even imitating the looks of Nofretete when she opened her Homecoming performance at Coachella.
Then images flash by, scenes of The Wedding at Cana by Veronese. In the painting white people celebrate and have an exuberant feast. Another scene opens up where Beyoncé and all the dancers party by the Sphinx of Tanis. Here once again the continuous storytelling establishes a reflecting scene of a painting of Western Art, in juxtaposition to black bodies expressing themselves.
This exciting scene is followed by showing two ensemble dancers, Jasmine Harper and Nicholas Stewart. She is picking out his hair, which is also known as combing someone with African or Afro- American hair. It is a very deeply set cultural act to do and shows a form of personal care. Something uniquely African and Afro- American. They do this in front of the painting of Mona Lisa, once again showing up in a space where people of colour have never been represented and claiming this space in a very personal way. This image is also the cover of the accompanying album Everything is Love and represents the core of this music video and the album. The personal care and love represented, its beauty stands in clear contrast to the Western World. Mona Lisa becomes an outside viewer of this personal care. This time it is the other way around. No one is watching Mona Lisa but everyone is watching the man and the woman. They claim this space as their own. For once, Mona Lisa, the epitome of Western Art is in second place.
Within the closing lines of the music video one more image of a new painting appears which shows one of the very view women of colour in the Louvre. It was painted by Marie Guillemine Benoist who was a female painter at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. She was a woman ahead of her time. She painted mythological themes, as it was the fashion of the time, but she put a somewhat early feminist perspective within her paintings. Instead of painting for the male gaze she tried to paint in a different way. For instance, in her painting L’innocence entre la vertu et le vice (The Innocence between Virtue and Vice), she painted the figure that represents vice as a male person, whereas in many other paintings on this mythological theme, vice was portrayed as a woman, the bad character trait. In doing so, Marie changed the narrative making the man vain and the woman the virtuous one in the story. Like Beyoncé in the 21st century, Marie turned the narrative upside down and considering she painted this by the end of the 18th century this was a very courageous thing to do. Her other portrait, which appears in Beyoncé’s music video concludes the narrative of the story of slavery in France. The painting of the black woman, originally called Portrait d’une négresse, today known as Portrait of Madeleine was created during the short time slavery in France was abolished and Marie painted the black woman. She is shown with her right breast uncovered which refers to the style many artists since the Renaissance did. It is a symbol for breast feeding and fertility. Marie draws a direct line to Holy Mary by this artistic expression, as very often the Holy Mary was herself portrayed with her right breast bare and adds to the continuous theme of Beyoncé imitating Holy Mary.
Showing The Portrait of Madeleine in one of the final moments of the music video, it is almost like the cherry on top of everything that has come before. It draws a consistent line from slavery in France in the 18th century and a brave and artistic woman to the portrayal of women in art to the 21st century and Beyoncé. She continues the narrative of Madeleine and the artist Marie who were unable to continue their stories. It was then in 1814 when Marie Guillemine Benoist had to give up her work as an artist due to the changing political climate in France and had to resume her duties as a wife to her husband. At about the same time slavery was reinstated in France. What happened to the black woman portrayed in the painting by the name of Madeleine is unknown. She was born into slavery on the island of Guadeloupe, then, after coming to France she was free for a time and was even paid for her work as a servant. Her fate though remains a mystery, probably a horrible one, like with millions of other people who were enslaved due to the slave trade of that time.
Another note that must be made before the final scene of the music video is the fact that the lyrics of the music video were hardly discussed in this opinion piece. It is because of the simple fact that the images that appear throughout the music video are so strong and have their own narrative that hardly any words are needed to be said. The lyrics and the music of Beyoncé and Jay-Z are of secondary importance here. I would even suggest to the reader to watch the music video without sound and one will realise that it is still telling the same if not even a stronger story. Here Beyoncé and Jay-Z really have created a work of art that simply speaks for itself through images. You only have to know the stories behind the paintings and the artwork they are using to tell their story.
The music video closes by returning to the beginning. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand in front of the portrait of Mona Lisa. The beats, the melody and the rhythm of the song cease, once again there is only silence. Beyoncé and Jay-Z turn around and now face Mona Lisa and look at her like equals.
Since the music video came out many have wondered what this last scene means and many interpretations have come of it. Continuing the line of thought of this opinion piece and keeping Beyoncé at the centre of the music video, it is the ultimate message of Beyoncé not only representing a female black artist but representing a figure of art itself like Mona Lisa. Everybody in the Western World and probably beyond knows the painting of Mona Lisa. And everybody in the Western World and beyond knows the face and the voice of Beyoncé. Not anymore is she an artist but a work of art herself. She and Mona Lisa look each other in the eyes, supreme women, symbols of art, immortal within human culture, standing supreme like goddesses.
One comment on “The Art of Beyoncé”
impressive, like it…
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