«My mother taught me the importance, not just of being seen, but of seeing myself,» Beyoncé said to Vogue US in September. In her well-publicised interview, pop icon Beyoncé celebrates the fact that «not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.»
Indeed, several other magazines have also featured black women on their covers recently. What is more, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue UK, Edward Enninful, is – for the first time in history – a black man. All this in the same year that – for the first time in history – Hollywood produced a blockbuster with a black hero, Black Panther. Taking place in Africa, almost all of the cast is black, and it is also directed by a black director.
But, isn‘t it the opposite that should amaze us more?
How come only now – more than one hundred years after the invention of cinema – the cultural industry is hiring African American professionals and adjusting photographic techniques to the requirements of persons with skin colour darker than that of an average Caucasian?
Conquering the Louvre
This is the context in which Beyoncé and Jay-Z – the African American pop idols with the stage name The Carters – promoted their newest projects: the On The Run II Tour and the album Everything Is Love. They‘ve «opened doors» for their fellow African American artists – their juniors, but also seniors. The tour poster is a direct reference to one of the most important African films ever made, Touki Bouki (1973), a feature film by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety.
Now they‘ve conquered the Louvre – a temple of European culture – as the shooting location of the video «Apes**t», from their Everything Is Love album, declaring plainly in the lyrics that «I can’t believe we made it».
In their video The Carters are the ones with power. They have appropriated an elite space and challenged the dominant mode of looking at Africans. And as several reviewers eagerly noted, most of the artworks featured in the video are those portraying Africans: from Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) to Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress (1800) – a painting that in its time of creation was one of the few art works to showcase a black person as the sole subject.
The Carters place themselves in the position of «being-looked-at», but at the same time they are the ones looking. With their overly designed appearances and carefully choreographed performances, they celebrate the beauty of bodies in motion. Simultaneously, they‘re denouncing the rigidity of the institution of the museum and exploiting this institution as one of the markers of their success.
Africa as a projection of European demons
The appropriation of high art is actually one of the prevailing creative strategies in contemporary visual culture. Several other artists have recently used the Louvre as a location for their projects, not least Toni Morrison who organised a poetry slam in front of the previously mentioned Géricault painting. The Carters themselves have already, even if rather controversially, referred to the works of prominent visual artists: Jay-Z to Marina Abramovic and Beyoncé to Pipilotti Rist.
But beyond this convergence between the popular and the elite celebrated in The Carters’ cry «we made it», there is another more ambiguous and less comforting aspect of The Carters’ presence in the Louvre. Seen from this angle, the benevolent assertion that The Carters, with the «Apes**t» video, have established themselves as both outsiders and heirs, has more than one singular meaning.
This aspect is directly addressed by another, much older and not so popular film, Les statues meurent ausi (Statues Also Die), produced in 1953 by the journal Présence Africaine, and directed by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. The two noted French filmmakers initially intended to make a film about African art, which was little seen or appreciated in France in the 1950s. However, while doing research for the film, they began to wonder (in the words of Resnais): «why [is] the black African art located in the Musée de l’Homme (an ethnographic museum), whereas the Greek or Egyptian is in the Louvre?»
«Africa was not considered to have a history, guaranteeing that history was determined by the Europeans.»
In his poetic text for the film’s voice-over narration, Marker was critical of the colonial view that regards African art as primitive but European art as classic. He claimed that African art is degraded when taken out of its initial context, yet he did not try to restore some original view of it. Instead, he used cinematic language to give a new life to its art objects.
Previously, Africa was not considered to have a history, guaranteeing that history was determined by the Europeans. But the film – showing different images of Africa from different historical periods – defined Africa as a continent with its own history. Presented in the film from different points of view and through sequences of details, the black African art objects start to move and become almost alive (a technique that Marker fully developed in La Jetée from 1962, a film almost entirely composed of still images). At this point of the film, as Africa is presented in all its plurality and diversity, Marker’s text becomes critical of colonial and racist practices – from imagining Africa as a projection of European demons, to the exploitation of traditional art objects as well as the very bodies of black Africans in popular culture as athletes and musicians. It ends with black African masks and a celebration of unity, because, in Marker’s words, «there is no rupture between African civilisation and ours. The faces of black art fell off from the same human face, like the serpent’s skin.»
Marks the unspeakable
With its vivid motion, ever more festive and ecstatic, the cinematic exhibition of African masks that concludes Statues Also Die feels like a prequel to the «Apes**t» video. Indeed, the «Apes**t» itself appears as a mask, a signifier that – with the two dots in the official transcription of the video’s title – marks the unspeakable and hides the obvious at the same time. Dancing sequences and The Carters’ continuous changing of their outfits and images evoke the carnivalesque and point to another legendary mix of popular and elite cultures with ape in their title. Namely, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!, the first studio album by Bow Wow Wow.
It was produced by the legendary punk music producer Malcolm McLaren who used elements of the carnivalesque in a more directly political manner, close to Bakhtin’s interpretation of the role of the carnival in medieval Europe – that once a year it enabled people to freely criticise their masters. The cover photograph depicted the band recreating Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863) with the singer Annabella Lwin posing nude. She was 14 at the time, and the band was accused of the exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes. For the band’s audience, however, this was a form of ironic identification, a provocation, just like McLaren’s previous punk music projects, which denounced the hypocrisy of those in power who themselves exploit teenage sexuality whenever it is to their advantage.
Other victories to be won
In a similar way, The Carters’ cry «I can’t believe we made it» is not just a plain, joyful celebration of their success. It is an ironic identification, and as such it is also an acknowledgment that beyond personal success, there are other victories to be won. The appropriation of high art and the ironic reference to the apes are two common traits of the two songs. But there are also the bodies – worker’s bodies, teenager’s bodies, black people’s bodies – celebrating, in the festive carnivalesque manner, their freedom, their liberation from repression. The reference to the apes, to animals – that is to non-humans – implies that the repression of those subjected to it is beyond human. And it is the repression, according to Marker, that unites black and white; repression is what we have in common:
«There would be nothing to prevent us from being together, the inheritors of two pasts if that equality could be recovered in the present. Less remarked, it is prefigured by the only equality denied to no one, that of repression.»
It is therefore necessary to look behind the mask and see what the unspeakable has to say. «Apes**t» is not ape crazy. Ape crazy, as in the title of the first Bow Wow Wow album, is a celebration. Apes**t is, to quote directly from the urban dictionary, «when a person gets so mad that they are about to start throwing shit, like apes do.» Anger. Beyond this, in Marker’s words again, «we recognise this promise, common to all the great cultures, of a man who is victorious over the world. And – white or black – our future is made of this promise.»