There’s a moment in Beyoncé and Jay Z’s video for “Apes**t,” about two minutes in, when Bey stands in formation in front of the painting The Coronation of Napoleon. She has, as the art historians who run @tabloidarthistory have pointed out, refocused the center of the image. Instead of Napoleon standing in front of the Pope to crown his own bride—itself a moment of breathtaking audacity—our eye is on Beyoncé’s body dancing in front of Josephine’s, her own head poised to take on the crown.
The video reminded me of a similar scene in the first episode of FX’s Pose. A drag family, made up of queer men and trans women in late-eighties New York, is looking for the best way to dazzle at an upcoming ball—so they decide to rob a museum’s costume exhibit. After they’ve hidden from security at the museum’s closing time, they stalk through the museum to the soundtrack of The Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House.”
Three of the trans women stop before different pieces of art; the house mother stops before a carving of a Pharaoh’s head that looks exactly like her own and smiles. Another woman stops in front of the sculpted body of an Egyptian guard that’s lost its head. Most poignantly, the final woman stands in front of a face carved in black stone with the same features as her own, except the statue’s nose has been worn away or destroyed. The woman reaches out for a moment, a look of longing on her face, before she’s forced to turn and get to business.
That scene in Pose imagines marginalized people in a place of power—an art museum—but only in that space after hours, sneaking in, claiming their space for only a few minutes before breaking a window to escape and alerting the police to their trespassing. It’s a moment of triumph that the viewer knows is going to be punished very shortly, and it’s a testament to the actress Indya Moore that she infuses the moment with something besides naked transgression—with desire and recognition.
In contrast, Beyoncé and Jay Z inhabit the halls of the Louvre as conquerors. The video is nothing if not a statement of ownership and unabashed pride in holding on to a space, a claim to the complicated position of mastery and the role of a master. One of the pleasures of the video is knowing that there’s no punishment coming. As they tell you themselves throughout the song, Beyoncé and Jay Z confidently belong there.
Visual art, at least in the last 200 or so years in the Western world, has always served two purposes: to display wealth and to display cultural power. Now, in our current economy, sometimes it’s literal currency. Beyoncé and Jay Z, unabashed lovers of capitalism, are establishing their ownership of all of this. It’s a celebration of these multiple meanings of art and a declaration that the art they make together occupies the same space.
On the Everything Is Love track “Black Effect,” Beyoncé sings, “I would never let you shoot the nose of my pharaoh.” It’s a reference to the myth that Napoleon’s army shot the nose off the Great Sphinx—either subconsciously or deliberately to obscure its African heritage. It’s a persistent story, one that seems to be validated with every broken pharaoh’s head, the broad noses lost to history, black influence in the world of cultural and monetary capital violently erased. And so too in what Beyoncé sings, that verb of permission, let, is the promise of self-determination, a rewriting of that myth with black people as actors.
The choice to film in the Louvre is filled with meaning. The museum is a showcase of looted art from other cultures, and the location can also be interpreted as a reference to black American artists’ historic obsession with Paris and French culture. France has long been viewed as a kind of escape from America and American race limitations, as a space of cultural and social freedom, despite the country’s own history of racism and colonization. I’m not suggesting that Beyoncé and Jay Z provide a workable alternative to the history of colonization through their art, but the artistic decision to center material wealth—and the fact that we measure that wealth through art—complicates, in the most thrilling and interesting ways possible, what freedom actually looks like.
Later in the album, on “Nice,” Beyoncé sings, “I ain’t never seen a ceiling in my whole life”—but this video raises questions about what we are actually striving for as free individuals, as people who try to build something bigger and stranger than ourselves and our past histories. What a strange and wonderful use Beyoncé has made of her cultural power, to repurpose art history as a kind of Easter egg in her videos. She asked us all to spend our weekend reading the history of images, meticulously building a text for us to read into it what we will.
But in all the art history references in the video, one—the Faith Ringgold work Dancing at the Louvre, pointed out by art historian Alexandra M. Thomas—especially stands out.
Taken from GLAMOUR US. Read the original here.
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