Beyoncé and Jay-Z are no strangers to making statements on the big stage. At Super Bowl 50’s halftime show in 2016, Beyoncé performed “Formation” in a costume evocative of the Black Panther Party. In April of this year, Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline Coachella–a musical festival traditionally considered for the white and privileged.
On June 14, the Carters released the video for “APES**T,” the first song from their joint album titled Everything is Love–and it does not disappoint.
The couple rented out the Musée du Louvre, which is located in Paris and it’s arguably the most iconic museum in history. Along with other black dancers, the couple moves throughout the museum with confidence and grace.
Art, especially European art, is largely considered to be Eurocentric and sexist. Work by women artists only comprises 3-5% of the work in the Louvre’s permanent collection. The museum, which was founded in 1793 has never had a female director. Additionally, pieces in the Louvre overwhelmingly feature white figures in power, with the majority of the people of color, especially women, depicted in positions of subservience or sexual exploitation.
It is clear the Carters’ did not select this setting for their video merely due to its aesthetically pleasing architecture of famous paintings–they are making a point. Beyoncé has paid homage to artworks within her past videos, however, “APES**T” takes this to a whole new level. Let’s break down some of the most major moments of the video to decipher what it all means.
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06
The most recognizable faces in the history of art, the Mona Lisa’s famous smile is clearly visible between and over the shoulders of the Carters. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are establishing themselves as equal to the Mona Lisa. They both stand squarely to the camera and look directly at the viewer–while the Mona Lisa also gazes out at us. The room, which is usually packed with tourists shoving for a glimpse of the Leonardo, is empty except for the couple–who radiates power and strength. Along with the woman in the painting, the three mirror the triangular composition of the Mona Lisa. The classic painting structure while not only creates a sense of balance, but is often implemented to evoke the holy trinity.
At the conclusion of the video, we are returned to the Carters standing before the Mona Lisa. Jay turns to admire his wife and then they both gaze at one another lovingly before turning to face the painting. The video concludes with the pair facing the painting and the Mona Lisa, in turn, looks at them–they are occupying the same space–as equally timeless icons.
Winged Victory of Samothrace, c. 220-185 B.C.E.
After the Mona Lisa, the Carter’s are shown standing before the sculpture depicting Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. As the song centers on the couple’s success and rise to power–the message of Beyoncé standing before Nike is clear. However, this choice is also significant as the statue is located at a major focal point of the gallery. Nike stands triumphant and intimidating at the intersection of three staircases between the first and second floors of the museum.
The couple is first shown standing in front of the statue, holding hands. We are shown all three figures from below–as they stand over us. We then see a number of dancers with varied skin tones moving in unison along the steps before the couple. While only the white body has long been permitted as “valued” within the artistic space, here they are–and they are refusing to be still like the art around them must be.
Therefore, while partially a celebration, this is also a refusal to conform to or obey white power structures. We are later shown Beyoncé seated alone at the base of the sculpture–she is comfortable at the top, even by herself.
Also, note that the only artwork shown clearly between shots of the dancers is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii–which presents an image of white men pledging violence in the name of patriotism.
The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine, Jacques Louis David, 1801
This massive and epic painting of Napoleon’s coronation depicts the moment when the emperor not only takes the crown from Pope Pius VII for himself but also crowned his wife Joséphine to fully establish their authority as a couple. While the obvious allusion can be made for Beyoncé and Jay Z as a power couple, Beyoncé is instead presented before this painting with only other women. Holding hands and moving in a hip-centric unison, Beyoncé is again asserting herself as an independent woman who can thrive with or without her man. Through feminine bonds, Beyoncé aims to achieve success herself, as well as aid other women.
Portrait of Juliette Récamier, Jacques-Louis David, 1800
Another work by David, this painting, was once considered the feminine epitome and beauty and grace in the European art world. The painting’s subject, Juliette Récamier was highly renowned in Paris and known for hosting highly exclusive and popular gatherings.
By presenting two black women before this painting, the idea that women of color can–and do–hold the same levels of beauty and importance as white women. While the figure in the painting looks at the viewer with an inviting gaze, the two women are facing away from the viewer, in profile–not acknowledging or entertaining the male gaze suggested by the painting.
In the photo posted by Beyoncé, one of the dancers sits alone before the work. She looks–almost challengingly–at the camera. Her outfit matches her skin color just as the woman in the painting’s dress matches her lighter skin.
Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress), Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 1800
Towards the end of the video, we are presented with the first work created by a black woman as well as the first to feature a black woman as the subject. The portrait is shown slightly cropped and occupies the entire screen in a still frame. The subject of this work, like the Mona Lisa, looks back at the viewer from her seated position. She is being presented in a position of clear regality deserving of respect and appreciation. Like Beyoncé, she is a woman of power, status, and beauty.