Apes**t at the Museum.
The Carters’ New Video and the Pains of Heritage Institutions
Last Saturday, in their newly released “Apeshit” video, Beyoncé and Jay-Z claimed one of the centerpieces of white European culture — the Louvre. The striking video injects Blackness into the white, European and colonial space of the Parisian museum.
Some of the Louvre’s most famous works have made notable appearances on screen, including Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), The Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 B.C.), Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana (1563), and Ary Scheffer’s Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil (1835), zooming in on Francesca’s tears.
While the video is largely a political stand against systematised racism, it could also prove to be what, as my interviewee says, “keeps us in trouble” — keeps us rethinking our heritage and therefore, engage with it. Add the virality of everything Beyoncé touches and voilà!
Could “Apes**t” be great news for the museums and their engagement strategies?
I have decided to talk about it with Ewa Drygalska - a Ph.D in Film Studies including a thesis on Blaxploitation cinema, and a Digital and Social Media Specialist at the National Museum in Warsaw. Also, a huge Beyonce fan.
What out of the things that happen in this video and that it represents do you find the most interesting? Perhaps Beyoncé’s overly repeated “I can’t believe we made it”?
Ewa Drygalska: Yes. An unapologetic take over of the noble, snow white institution by a powerful black female artist who is bold about her success is the strongest message of the video.
How many times in recent history has the Louvre, or any national museum for that matter, been the scene of a rap bravado? I love how the duo reinterpret classical pieces and remake the scenes of the old masters into contemporary situations: lavish hip-hop lifestyle, decadent black extravaganza or afro styling.
I have always been a big fan of Beyoncé and have been observing her aesthetic and visual strategies for years. In 2001 she introduced a word bootylicious into the Oxford English Dictionary, in 2016 a whole world heard about a Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who Beyoncé sampled in her single “Flawless”. In practice Beyoncé is basically redefining black popular feminism for many young women (she even became a subject of a few university courses). Some critics argue that in the case of Beyoncé, commercial and financial success is equaled with a sense of emancipation. However, if you think about how historically African Americans have been seen as a commodity and subsequently excluded from many professions as well as financial independence, and how black wealth is actually still seen as something obscene, you will understand that being black, female and rich is a such a big statement in America.
How does the video position itself within the context of systemic and institutionalised racism?
Ewa Drygalska: I believe that popular culture has always played an important role in revealing and challenging racism. Recently it could be observed in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, which painfully showed the scale of violence and systemic and institutionalised racism in the US. This biggest civil rights movement since the 1960s has motivated many black artists to take a political stand, including Beyoncé with her notorious Superbowl 2013 halftime show which paid tribute to Black Panthers, as well as her previous album “Lemonade”. In a visually striking “Formation” video she directly refers to police brutality against black men as well as well as the lack of help for the black victims of Hurricane Katrina that ravaged New Orleans in 2005. A couple of weeks ago another black artist, Childish Gambino released “This is America” — one of the most powerful video essay about the relationship between state, power and black minority, instantly reaching 6 milions viewers worldwide and all made it to all the national media. This is the kind of outreach that academics researching contemporary racism and postcolonialism can only dream of.
How important is this videoclip in the context of institutionalised memory and museum practice in general?
Ewa Drygalska: It keeps us “in trouble” and pushes us to rethink — again and again — the shameful past we desperately, are trying to forget. In the context of the Politics of Forgetfulness, I agree with the French theoretician and activist Françoise Vergès, when she talks about institutionalised strategy of the “forget chapter”: the efforts to include other voices and integrate alternative histories into the institution, whereas the frame of the narrative stays unquestioned. Because it’s not enough to have a chapter on slavery in the textbook or an exhibition on colonialism in your gallery to effectively change what is going on in the terms of power and to understand how and why it actually happened. For Beyoncé these participatory practices orchestrated by white saviours on a margin of the institution just aren’t enough. She wants the whole damn Louvre.
… and it the context of a PR for art online? Can it, ironically, raise the interest in classical art, a resource that so rarely goes viral nowadays?
Ewa Drygalska: If this video makes teenagers run to the museums, take selfies with Leonardos and Botticellis, share them on social media and basically make museums trendy again, I think it can only serve for the benefit of these institutions. As a museum worker I think that there is nothing more sad than empty galleries and quiet corridors. Nowadays we make an enormous effort to attract young people to museums, to encourage people to remix and reuse public domain and find new ways to interact with art.
Who do you think would have to come to the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland to similarly challenge the discourse?
Ewa Drygalska: Beyoncé! In the National Museum in Warsaw (NMW) we are all her truest fans and although we do not hold such precious art pieces as Louvre, we could blow Queen B away with our collection of regal accessories and a massive 4x10 meters Jan Matejko’s masterpiece whose story of preservation during the World War II could easily be an Oscar-winning film that includes Nazis, Espionage and a lot of brave museum workers who sacrificed their lives to protect the national treasure. Actually, I think that there is a rare upcoming opportunity: on June 30th she is giving a concert in Warsaw. Could we make that an official invitation? :)
On a more serious note, last year NMW fired a campaign “And you, what do you see?”. We invited public figures, who are not associated with visual arts to tell us about how they were affected by the works of art and how they felt in the museum. Among the invitees were an NBA player, a pop singer and a globetrotter. We wanted to show that the Museum is for everyone. Everyone can see something different according to their experiences and interests, regardless of their age, education or profession. The aim was for the Museum to be perceived as a place where you do not need to be a specialist, an art historian or archaeologist to simply enjoy what you see.