All of my people, I free ’em all: a look at the symbolism of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s video for ‘APESHIT’
Empires are built on slavery. Pillage. Oppression. Sacrifice of the many for benefit of the few, duly justified by the ruling elites as patriotism — even when this patriotism isn’t serving every citizen the same way. But then again, and as George Orwell said so himself, we are all equal but some are more equal than others.
This being said, and despite the numerous references in and ‘s video for ‘APESHIT’ — the first single from their surprise joint album Everything Is Love — I couldn’t help but focus on the role Western art as a signifier plays in the perception we might have of its meaning. The simple fact of the video taking place in the Louvre, one of those places whose auratic importance superposes its function, further underlines the accusative undertones one would expect from either of the artist’s work; and even if such interpretative approach may vary greatly from each viewer’s own cultural upbringing and overall context, I think it’s safe to say we all agree on one thing: the Louvre is and always will be a metaphor for both grandness and decadence.
If one bears in mind that Alphonse de Lamartine once called museums “art cemeteries” — a quote that can be read not only in the context of the static status a work of art is confined to once it’s hanged “to die” in a wall but also in its relevance pertaining more to the process itself than to the finished result — the Carters’ choice of lieux couldn’t be more adequate, especially since it also further devances the discussion on high art and low art.
The sacrilege that comes from occupying such a place is a dialogue with the dead, which in any possible case and context always means the ancestors of humanity as a collective entity. However, and due to the innate racial connotations, one can also read their Louvre “invasion” as the claiming of something that’s theirs by their own right; after all, Western art, which for centuries was seen — and still is — as being infinitely more relevant and valuable than any art coming from Africa, Asia, or Native America, is built on the same referents, usually social and/or religion-based. Its homologation as the norm of the contemporary Western world emerges as silently yet overwhelmingly oppressive to those who don’t share such referents — or even worse, those for whom said referents are but a reminder of endless dark ages of invasion, death, and land expropriation.
Despite many paintings and sculptures built around those referents being profusely featured on the video, some are treated to a longer gaze, which results in an internal hierarchisation that immediately influences our interpretation. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an obvious centrepiece as it represents the maximal status a work of art can achieve, signaling at the same time its innate irrelevance regarding the enjeux built around it; the Hellenic masterpiece Victory of Samothrace plays another important role in the uncanny narrative, be it for the supreme artistry it represents or for the very concept of freedom itself. Both Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s clothes emulate the statue’s (and later, Venus de Milo’s) whenever the pair is standing next to it, suggesting an elevation of status close to that of classical eternalisation.
Other oeuvres are shown in a more or less hurried way, the brevity of the shots removing nothing from their symbolic power: Géricault’s The Charging Chasseur, for exemple, establishes a visual parallel with the defiant position of a black man on top of a horse wearing trousers that seem to carry a reference to the United States’ flag, while Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana discusses secularism and the couple’s own marital status; Jacques Louis David’s Madame Récamier and The Intervention of the Sabine Women are another two paintings prominently featured throughout the video, openly tackling the theme of female condition and abuse, thus establishing a connection to Beyoncé’s previous album Lemonade. Multiple other close-ups of paintings depicting white people are conveniently juxtaposed to black dancers and actors recreating the scene, as it happens with the flashes of ropes tied around the arms of black slaves.
However, a particular painting that is featured long enough for us to pay special attention to is Jacques Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. This tableau gains a special dimension on ‘APESHIT’, not only due to the French statesman having been a self-proclaimed emperor thus defying any notion of democracy initially intended as a socio-political result to the French Revolution, but also because his image and legacy are highly controversial: not only did Napoleon occupy territories as if they were his to take, but he also conducted multiple pillages whose sack constitutes some of the Louvre’s most prominent pieces (hence the direct cultural appropriation reference), as it’s the case of the sphinx Beyoncé and Jay-Z appear with, a result of the Egypt campaign. Napoleon also crowned himself — David’s painting depicts exactly that — emerging as a symbol of an autocracy that sounds way too familiar to anyone defying political power and contesting a nation’s right of disposing of other countries’ cultures and assets like their own.
Other paintings that appears numerous times during the video, notably with Jay-Z standing in front of it, is Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa; it depicts a tragedy that occurred in the early 19th century off the coast of Mauritania after a shipwreck left over a hundred people adrift for almost a fortnight, the only fifteen survivors having had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. It seems to serve not only as a direct metaphor to the current migrant-related catastrophes in the Mediterranean but also as a referral to the way people are abandoned to their own fate by the governing elites, their situation eventually forcing them to literally kill each other.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z seem to address a dizzying number of social and political issues in ‘APESHIT’, most of them related to the notions of legacy, heritage, respect, mastery, and pride, but also theft, despotism, abuse, subjugation, and cultural exploitation. They are represented as yin and yang, Divine Feminine and Masculine, a symbiotic duality that doesn’t come as a surprise if we consider the general theme of the album. The Renaissance allure that breathes throughout its art references and overall imagerie contributes to this mystic epiphany, making them resonate as earthly and ethereal as Tarot’s own Emperor/Empress and Magician/High Priestess, respectively. The heavy symbology of the video allied to the power of such axis allows for their music’s combativeness to emerge as bold as ever, surreptitiously making the dominating power drink of its own medicine by using their own referents against them. The result is a brilliant deconstruction of human interactions that once more revolutionises the discussion of post-colonialism and cultural appropriation.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.