Declaration of Affluence?
THE critically acclaimed music video “Apeshit” by The Carters shot in 2018 created a necessary disruption in the Western art world. The video, holding almost 300 million views to date, was shot in the renowned Louvre Museum in Paris. The Carters, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and her husband Shawn Carter, or Jay-Z, who have a combined net worth of over 1.4 billion dollars, rap about the success of their careers as they peruse throughout this infamous gallery of art (Perloff). The Louvre officially opened on November 18th 1793, as “a museum displaying works formerly part of the royal collection” and was created as France’s national gallery of art (Connelly 120). During the time period surrounding the opening of the Louvre, France had established colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and North America which they exploited for resources, capital, and labor. Consequently, “Apeshit” was widely received as a radical act of expression in which a Black couple, the epitome of “Black excellence”, were reclaiming a Western space that never intended to showcase Black people in an honest or positive light. The “Apeshit” project is not an example of decolonizing a French museum because the flaunting of the couple’s affluence emphasized by their luxury brand clothing and wealth-boasting song lyrics perpetuates Black elitism and furthers the narrative that their wealth earned them access to this Western realm and that their Blackness alone didn’t make them deserving of co-opting such a space. Moreover, The Carters showcase the few Black faces and bodies present in art pieces within the Louvre but fail to address what the presence of those individuals means in regard to colonization.
While the video exudes a sense of reclamation and power, there is a distinction to be made between a radical act of expression and a decolonization of the Louvre. As French political scientist Françoise Vergès states in “Decolonize the City”, “Adherence to colonialism stemmed from the narcissistic sentiment of belonging to a “great France” which supposedly brought civilization to populations considered to still be living in barbarity” (Vergès 8). In belonging to a nation that held itself in such high esteem, came the creation of museums which were “Often thought of as integral institutions of progress, enlightenment and modernity” (Vawda 74). However, as researcher Shahid Vawda asserts, these European museums “are deeply implicated in colonialism itself” (Vawda 74). The Louvre was placed on a pedestal due to its stature as a colonial power and ability to showcase non-Europeans in a demeaning fashion that attempted to prove that they were deserving of their inferiority. While The Carters never claimed to have decolonized the Louvre in their project, it is important to understand what decolonization entails and why it is imperative to decolonize art spaces. Specifically, “To decolonise means to admit what colonisation meant for museums:...the takeover of states and governance systems...the subjugation of Indigenous peoples...the act of removing, without permission of the owners...usually by stealing, looting...the creation of museums...such objects that...legitimise the colonial conquest and...place the people represented by the objects in inferior, unequal positions” (Vawda 74). Vawda affirms that, “Decolonialisation shall mean to resist the reproduction and romanticizing of the pre-colonial and the colonial situation” and to shift colonising power-conceptual relations” (Vawda 78). However, those efforts are not present in the “Apeshit” project.
The Carters have amassed insurmountable amounts of wealth through different avenues. Beyonce Knowles-Carter has starred in a myriad of films she, “has also launched her own clothing line, House of Dereon, as well as a fragrance line. She has endorsement deals with L'Oreal, Tommy Hilfiger, Pepsi, and Emporio Armani.” and, “In the course of her career, she has sold more than 400 million records” (Griffin 187). Her husband has a steadily growing portfolio of business that includes, “liquor, art, real estate, and stakes in companies like Uber” and “is the first hip-hop artist to become a billionaire” (Perloff). Throughout the video the couple can be seen in Versace and MCM clothing as they repeat, “I can't believe we made it” and “This is what we're thankful for” in the chorus (“The Carters” 00:01:16-00:01:22). Before Beyonce sashays in a Burberry outfit along with a troupe of Black woman dancers in front of The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of the Emperor Josephine, she exclaims, “We livin’ lavish, I got expensive fabrics, I got expensive habits” (“The Carters” 00:01:34-00:01:38). It is also important to note that Beyonce and Jay-Z are the only two within the video that don these luxury European brands, as the dancers mostly appear in nude colored undergarments. Thus, singling out the couple as two affluent Black people. As she makes tantrum-like movements and her husband stands alongside her, Beyonce boasts about what she has used her wealth for. While wearing an MCM hat and corset she raps, “Bought him a jet” and in another shot, simply namedrops a luxury brand, “Phillipe Patek” (“The Carters” 00:01:52-00:01:59). The choice to display luxury European brands that are notorious for exploiting non-European laborers is far from anti-colonialist. As Beyonce continues, she also exclaims, “Look at my jewelry, I’m lethal” to insinuate that the material items she has purchased have made her indefensible and awarded her an elevated status worthy of being in the Louvre (“The Carters” 00:04:46). In flaunting her wealth she emphasizes the notion that she did not infiltrate the Louvre to make a statement about dismantling the institution or ridding the museum of its romanticism, but instead willingly bought her way into the space. In co-opting the space and affirming within their lyrics that this is the definition of success they have also romanticized the environment by turning its entry into an achievement.
Ultimately, The Carters become art, and establish themselves as aberrations from the average Black person. As they isolate themselves as a couple through their positioning, clothing, and visages, they emphasize how they too want to be perceived as esteemed art and how this project is not about decolonization but instead centered around the insertion of Blackness and beauty into the museum. In the video, they stand atop a staircase, holding hands, in front of The Winged Victory of Samothrace in all white clothing. As they signify their togetherness, the Black dancers lay on stairs beneath them (“The Carters” 00:00:59-00:01:07). The brown colored undergarments that the dancers wear, group them as a separate entity and community, and highlight their melanated skin tones. Their position on the steps and clothing, separate them from Beyonce and Jay-Z, even though they are all Black people. In the few instances where Beyonce and Jay-Z are sitting in the video, their faces are bearded with stern countenances. The camera zooms on the couple as they sit amidst a dark hallway where the art is indiscernible, and intentionally creates a moment for audiences to ruminate on the couple and their affluence (“The Carters” 00:01:16-00:01:18). The ominous ambience coupled with their unfriendly facial expressions signifies that despite the absence of movement from their faces, this is still a loud moment because there are wealthy Black people in the Louvre. They are illuminating the fact that they are “interjecting blackness into a space that has never placed much value on it” as Claire Cothren asserts in her article on the aesthetics of whiteness in The English Journal (Cothren 38). However, they also highlight that blackness is not a monolith, and that they are in fact different, which is the distinction that is most important to note.
There is a scene in the latter half of the video that embodies the notion that The Carters have singled themselves out as deviations from the larger Black community. A Black woman stands atop a Black man and combs his hair with an afro pick as he sits in front of the Mona Lisa (“The Carters” 00:05:21-00:05:23). The Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait in the world and this shot exists to say that doing Black hair is also venerated art, and that this practice, usually relegated to salons and houses, is worthy of being performed in this space. However, why isn’t Beyonce combing Jay-Z’s hair? Why did they put dancers in their places? It perpetuates the notion that they adhere to respectability politics and while they celebrate and respect these practices within the Black community, they do so from a distance. Once again, they prove that they are not representative of the average Black person and that their project serves to isolate themselves and celebrate Blackness generally, and not decolonize the museum space.
As The Carters boast around the museum, when the camera isn’t on them or the dancers, it focuses on depictions of Black bodies in paintings. For a singular second at the end of the video, the camera hangs on the Portrait of a Black Woman painted by Marie-Guillemine Benoist to celebrate the presence of Black bodies in the Louvre (“The Carters” 00:05:37-00:05:38). According to the distinguished Louvre’s website, the model Benoist chose was an unknown Black woman and former slave, and this art was deemed a stand in support of the abolition of slavery (“Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s”). The close up shot of the painting clearly intended to emphasize how this portrait of a Black woman was an accomplishment, as a free Black woman was being showcased in the Louvre. However, someone who intends to decolonize the museum would first ask why this woman was deemed unknown. Who does she descend from? Was she compensated for this depiction of her likeness? Did the title always include, “Black Woman” or was she originally referred to as a slur? While the “Apeshit” project was a music video, there are still ways in which these questions could have been posed to audiences, or there could have at least been ways to make audiences process these inquiries. For instance, the camera could have zoomed in on the label of the painting, and held on it for more than a single second to have the audience question and research the title of the piece. The camera could have used an arc shot, or started from a wide shot and gradually zoomed in to the piece, to draw the focus of audiences and signify something twisted about the creation of this portrait. Digitally, the art subject’s head could have been circled, or a large question mark could have been plastered across the image. Later in the video there is a shot of The Wedding Feast at Cana, a painting of a biblical scene, and the camera focuses on the Black woman serving food within the piece (“The Carters” 00:04:29). However, her image is incredibly small and hard to locate even within the shot. These shots insinuate that depictions of Black people within this art is an honor, however, in considering the time period and difference in garb that these individuals have, they were clearly enslaved. Individuals that sought to decolonize this space would have instead exposed how colonization played a role in these art pieces and not just showcased them and considered their presence in the Western space to have been an accomplishment.
While the “Apeshit” project did an incredible job of praising and showcasing Blackness in the Louvre, it did not decolonize the museum. As Vawda discusses, to decolonise is to admit what
colonization meant for these museum spaces, and not simply display or highlight elements of colonization (Vawda 74). Instead, The Carters flaunt their affluence and transform into Black tokens that ultimately perpetuate Black elitism and further the notion that their wealth and stature as artists granted them entry into the museum, and that they did not barge in unannounced to make a grandiose anti-colonialist statement. They portray themselves as exceptions from the larger Black community which thwarts the message of the video to be about them and not decolonization. Moreover, the couple showcase Black bodies present in art within the museum but fail to take the further step of decolonizing those individuals, art labels, and artists. This was not an act of rebellion, but a simple renting of a museum that those with a level of wealth above a certain threshold can afford to attain.
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