What were you doing when “Apes**t” dropped?
Me? I can’t say for certain. I try to go computer-free on Saturdays, which means that when I woke up this morning to the following text, I audibly gasped for two reasons. First, because I had no idea that the Carters had finally released their hinted-at joint album. And second, because I could tell from the tiny YouTube thumbnail that their first video was filmed at the Louvre.
“Apes**t” opens with a winged angel crouched on the steps of the Louvre and moves through a series of quick close-ups of several paintings before panning in on our real subjects: Beyonce and Jay Z, works of art themselves in matching suits and opulent jewelry, standing poker-faced in front of the Mona Lisa. Almost immediately, we cut again to the pair standing atop the stairs before The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a sea of undulating bodies dotting the steps below them.
It’s almost impossible to see the faces on any of the dancers, but that’s not what matters. The dancers are subverting two of the most prevalent expectations of what a museum “should” be: with their movement, they’re challenging the belief that a museum is a staid, stuffy space, one for controlled interactions along a set series of parameters, the last place in the world where anyone would ever go “apes**t.” And with their bodies, the vast majority of which are varying shades of black, they’re fighting against the unspoken belief that museums are white spaces.
It’s no secret that museums have a troubled history with art and artifacts from people of color. While you can find many instances of art depicting black faces or black bodies in the Louvre, few were created by black artists. And many of those artifacts that were created by black people were taken, forcibly, during periods of colonization.
It’s exactly this issue that’s addressed in an early scene in Black Panther, when Killmonger challenges an art director over the ownership of a series of African artifacts. If the objects were stolen centuries ago, who has claim over them? The descendants of the thieves, or the descendants of the victims?
That scene in Black Panther has implications beyond Killmonger’s line of questioning. The art director is impatient with and dismissive of Killmonger, both before and after he brings up this ethical dilemma. What’s implied by the art director’s annoyance is another central idea addressed in “Apes**t”: that black bodies don’t belong in the world’s foremost cultural institutions.
The sense of exclusion that people of color feel in museums shouldn’t be shocking; Michelle Obama addressed it in her 2015 speech at the opening of the Whitney Museums, describing herself as one of millions of children of color who did not feel welcome in museum spaces. And yet, three years later, after a portrait of Obama herself now hangs in a world-famous museum, it still feels subversive to see black bodies in the Louvre.
Beyonce and Jay-Z know this, and they confront the issue head-on. In “Apes**t,” they are not just black bodies inhabiting a museum, but black works of art and black artists themselves, controlling every inch of the hallowed halls. They position their bodies (and the bodies of their dancers) in front of some of the most iconic works of art in the world: the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, The Consecration of Napoleon and the Coronation of Queen Josephine.
Their choice of space is important – in another setting, their movements and words might have an entirely different meaning. But in the Louvre, they have a specific message: they can’t believe they made it, but they are here and they belong.
The last painting to receive a true spotlight in “Apes**t” is Portrait of a Negress by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. Completed in 1800, the painting is unique for a number of reasons. It’s one of the only pre-20th century portraits in the Louvre that features a black person (a black woman, nonetheless) who is not a slave. It’s worth noting that its artist is also a woman.
It’s not an accident that “Apes**t” ends its tour of the Louvre with this image, especially when the video itself, while released by the Carters as a team, is Beyonce’s show through and through. Portrait of a Negress is a controversial painting – though created after emancipation in France, it’s unlikely that the woman featured in the portrait had much agency herself. Interpretations of the woman’s expression have ranged from stoicism to frustration to contentment – an enigma, just like the much more famous Mona Lisa. Yet unlike da Vinci’s masterpiece, which the Carters upstage in every shot, Portrait of a Negress is shown by itself, sending the clear message that whoever this woman is, she belongs.
It’s this point that we as museum professionals should take with us when grappling with our portrayal in recent cultural depictions like Black Panther and “Apes**t.” All too often, museums are seen as places that present a highly sanitized version of the past, one that excludes and marginalizes large swaths of the world’s populations. But that perception is not set in stone. Museums have the opportunity to become leaders in conversations of the moment by turning inward and providing safe spaces to explore and confront complex issues.
In other words, it’s time that we went a little apes**t.