In the Summer of 2018, Beyoncé Knowles and Sean Carter did an unprecedented thing: they shut down the Louvre.
We don’t know what it cost and we don’t know for exactly how long the museum was used for the pair, but it was certainly longer than any other celebrity had ever been allowed before. Opening with intimate details of brushstrokes and dramatic pans of parquet floors, the pop culture royals stood in front of the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory silently, powerfully, and energetically, even when not moving an inch. No strangers to the arts world, bigger than the Super Bowl and spaceships, the video parallels Bey with Venus de Milo and Hova with the great Sphinx of Tanis (part lion, part king). But this music video, art in and of itself, isn’t merely visual swagger. As is usually the case with the Carter-Knowles, symbolism and activism are draped over nearly every verse and aesthetic choice.
Take for instance the giant and nebulous painting behind Jay-Z as he rhymes about Grammy snubs. The imposing Gericault is over 23’ x 16’ and is perhaps the most gruesome example of how art can spur on political movements. “The Raft of Medusa” depicts a moment marred by nepotism and colonial conquest of the African continent by French authorities. The story goes: a poorly trained but highly favored captain’s inexperience resulted in the sinking of the ship Medusa, while survivors built a raft engineered with hope and very little else in an attempt at survival. The 1816 real news disaster resulted in the death of all but 15 of the ship’s original 400 passengers (5 of the survivors quickly died within days after reaching land). Subsequently, Gericault’s monumental relation of the incident was exhibited at the Paris Salon to mesmerized crowds and in London in order to help galvanize the anti-slavery movement. With a Black man at the apex of a pyramidal composition typically reserved for spiritual royals (think the virgin Mary with baby Jesus) and a confrontational realism that even the great Master Delacroix borrowed from, a historian at the time wrote: “our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa”. Jay-Z’s placement is certainly no accident.
A few verses later Beyonce’ asserts: “can’t be toppin my reign'' in front of I.M. Pei’s pyramid
, post dancing in Burberry in front of a depiction of Empress Josephine’s coronation. She is a counter to that queen, not subjugated, but powerful in her own right and with those alongside her, in line to a different kind of future. Fashion, too, has a moment in “Apeshit'' as it does in most of the Queen Bey’s work: a pink pantsuit and her intent are not to be underestimated and neither is the role of the painting “A Portrait of a Negress” by Marie-Guillemine Benoist from 1800. Stripped of her name, the implied slave wears a turban hair wrap similar to that of Beyonce’s Versace version in other portions of the video - an allusion perhaps to the “Tignon” laws of 18th century Louisiana that the singer would undoubtedly be familiar with and symbolism she has used before.
This monarchical family’s personal art collection is said to be vast enough for a gallery of its own...as if it weren’t enough to have artists help you break the internet with your birth announcements. While Bey is a fan of Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker, Jay is taken with Damien Hurst and Basquiat. He mentioned the latter in his 2013 single “Picasso Baby from his 12th studio album: “It aint’ hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel”. Meanwhile, the modern day Mona Lisa with better features was recently photographed by Durham photographer Kennedi Carter (no relation) for British Vogue...the cover of said magazine being the inspiration to write this post.
In an entirely unique way, perhaps what makes this pair so royal in our minds is their sharing of the throne. “Black is King” and “Girls Run the World” infuse a certain air of collective majesty into their lyrics paralleled only by their coinciding videos and social media representations. The magazine Vogue has been around for over 125 years and yet their first Black cover photographer, Tyler Mitchell in 2018 was someone Beyoncé brought on, just as she’s done with Kennedi Carter
- given an opportunity to someone inexplicably gifted, not merely inspiring and in a manner that is different than schooling a craft, no, she hones in on already powerfully attuned artists and stokes their fire, expands their light.
As we begin a new year with more unprecedented happenings, it is important to shine a little bit of brightness where so much has been dark - visual art does that in a way no other medium can...well, except for maybe music, especially that of the King and Queen.