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A guide to the artwork featured in The Carters’ ‘APESHIT’

The first music video from Everything Is Love highlights some of the world’s most famous art – here’s why

The surprise release of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s new album, Everything Is Love, (credited as “The Carters” on the album to recognize they’re performing as a united duo, not as individuals) on Saturday, June 16 has left the music world reeling.

Already, what fans have been carefully dissecting – and what we’re interested in unpacking, too – is the imagery from the music video for the album’s lead single, “APESHIT”. The six-minute video is likely going to be considered one of the best of 2018, with The Carters and a troupe of dancers taking over the Louvre. In case you couldn’t already tell, the fact that Bey and Jay even got unfettered access to the Louvre for their own use is a stunning power move – adding a glorious power to the “APESHIT” lyric “I can’t believe we made it/ This is why we’re thankful”.

THE LOUVRE

Let’s start with the primary location in “APESHIT”: the Louvre. Historically, it’s a predominately white space that primarily features white, male-created works of art. It’s a microcosm of history, which itself is mostly white, male, and heterosexual. Tradition and the Louvre go hand-in-hand, too, which means that Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s presence is a total disruption from the beginning. For modern audiences and fans of The Carters, the disruption is surely welcome. 

Not only can we expect to see (and do see) The Carters standing next to some of the most famous works of art, including the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace, but we see that they are aligning themselves with it right out of the gate. Their presence in a place that preserves what history has deemed the most important artworks, standing next to said art while themselves looking like art and using their body language to engage with this art, already implies they are as worthy of being there as the older work. It’s a middle finger to convention, a dare aimed at squarely at the gatekeepers of history and artistic tradition: You know we deserve to be here.

LEONARDO DA VINCI – “MONA LISA” (1503)

The Carters begin positioning themselves as iconography from the moment we first see them, standing in front of the “Mona Lisa”. Sure, it’s a callback to the first time they took a photo with arguably the most famous painting in history back in 2014, but something is different this time around.

Like the “Mona Lisa”, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are dressed simply, but powerfully. Suits for both, in bright colours and styles specific to their tastes and representative of the times they live in; again, just like the “Mona Lisa”. But even more of an echo of the painting is their expressions: a strong stare straight ahead, lips pressed together, shoulders back. They are telegraphing to us that they are as iconic as the “Mona Lisa”, without even saying a word. By donning expressions very much in the same vein as the iconic painting, they’re telling the viewer that they’re basically in the presence of a peer. 

But even more than that, they’re commenting on the beguiling and enticing space they occupy in our own culture. Much like the “Mona Lisa”, they are telling us that they know we think about them in a way we don’t think about other music artists. They know that we’ll spend hours analysing them and their work, attempting to find meaning in their movements and lyrics, trying to work out the symbols and icons they’ve put forth, and hoping to crack the impenetrable fortress they’ve built around them (from which they only emerge to become vulnerable when they want to). 

Humans have spent centuries trying to unpack the enigma of the “Mona Lisa” and still continue to do so to this day; do you really think you can figure out The Carters in a day? 

MARIE-GUILLEMINE BENOIST – “PORTRAIT OF A BLACK WOMAN (NEGRESS)” (1800)

Another immensely important moment from “APESHIT” comes in the repeated glimpses of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress)” from 1800. One of the few works of art painted by a woman in the Louvre, the painting is deeply important both as a feature in the Louvre and its place in art history, because it is the only painting of its time to depict a black woman who is not a slave or similarly subjugated person, but rather simply presented in all her glory.

The painting affirms that black women are worthy of being in artistic spaces, and in enduring imagery. The painting is shown a few times, and it’s the second to last painting we see before the video closes on Bey and Jay turning around to regard the “Mona Lisa” – further confirmation that Benoist’s painting and its subject deserve recognition.

“WINGED VICTORY OF SAMOTHRACE” (2ND CENTURY BC)

It’s also no accident that the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” statue is frequently seen in “APESHIT”. Implying triumph and power, the statue has endured over centuries, and The Carters imply just as much by once again standing in front of it, in perhaps a nod to their own triumph and the power they’ve achieved. According to the Louvre website for the piece, the statue depicts Nike, and was likely created to commemorate a naval victory by the Rhodians (who hail from Rhodes, part of the Dodecanese island group in Greece). The towering relic from the Hellenistic period is, as the Louvre’s description notes, intensely dramatic and glorifies the female body in connection with something traditionally masculine (victory in war).

That endowment of power to a female body is then emulated in the female bodies that stand before it in present day, through Beyoncé and her troupe of female dancers. All of these women come together and move as one being, with Beyoncé presiding over them all. She is the modern image of victory over the warfare placed on her body, career, intellect, personal life; having succeeded, she can now dress like “Winged Victory” and, in a sense, pass along her victories to the women who dance on the steps in front of her.

“VENUS DE MILO” (130-100 BC)

Twitter user Queen Curly Fry’s in-depth Twitter thread breaking down the art seen in “APESHIT” is thorough, and her comments on the incorporation of the “Venus de Milo” into the video is so neatly articulated that we couldn’t have said it better if we tried: “Here, Beyoncé once again models herself as a Greek statue, this time the Venus de Milo. However, in this shot she wears a nude bodysuit with wrapped hair, reframing both goddesses of beauty and victory as a black woman. This dismantles white-centric ideals of beauty.”

JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID – “THE CONSECRATION OF THE EMPEROR NAPOLEAN...” (1807)

Similarly, Twitter account Tabloid Art History nails why it’s so important and iconic for Beyoncé and her dancers to be dancing in front of “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine” by Jacques Louis David from 1804: “What I especially like about this part of the video is that the painting itself depicts a disruption, Napoleon taking the Pope’s role from him and crowning Josephine himself. Beyoncé further disrupts this by taking on Josephine’s role as the one being crowned.”

If we consider Napoleon’s role as a major coloniser in the early 19th century, particularly in Northern Africa, then Beyoncé’s placement in the shot is extra symbolic. Beyoncé standing underneath the place where Napoleon is seen crowning his wife in the painting is a symbolic retrieval of stolen power. 

JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID – “THE INTERVENTION OF THE SABINE WOMEN” (1799)

One of the other paintings we see in “APESHIT” is another Jacques-Louis David painting, “The Intervention of the Sabine Women.” Interestingly, we only see portions of the painting, never the entire artwork. This could be a sly comment on the dissection and appropriation of black bodies by white culture for their own aesthetic uses – or it could just be a deft use of quick cuts for dramatic effect for the video. Or maybe it’s both.  

Twitter user Queen Curly Fry notes here that the painting, for the puposes of “APESHIT”, depicts “(white) female fear evoked by (white) male violence is juxtaposed w/ (black) female empowerment (‘get off my dick’).” The painting’s use of white female tears –long criticised as a way for white women to shift any blame they deserve for racist behaviour, or to turn a blind eye to racial injustice – is in direct contrast with Beyoncé and her dancers’ freedom, calm, and enlightenment.

In the end, “APESHIT” is a triumph because it is a statement that only The Carters could successfully make. The visual tells the powers that be to fuck off with their tradition, their preciously guarded history that has sought to erase non-white people from the history books, and their preconceived notions about how black bodies can be ornamental.

They’ve used art to push back, to demand honour for the work they’ve contributed. “APESHIT” is a force to be reckoned with, and The Carters’ use of art to make a statement is an announcement to the world that they’ve shaped culture as much as anything hanging on a gallery wall.

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