Uttara Rangarajan | 21 January, 2019
Art museums have long been an elite space, subsumed within hierarchies of colour and class while displaying work made for the rich and powerful. Western art has traditionally worked from within the colonial gaze to present whiteness as the norm, to invisibilise or stereotype people of other ethnicities. In the modern era, as people from around the world strive to break free of these categories, one of the most powerful challenges to western iconography has emerged from music videos which reinvent and undermine the Eurocentricism of western art.
“Apeshit” by Jay-Z and Beyoncé stands at the forefront of this novel trend. Shot in the Louvre, a space lavish, extravagant and brimming with colonial wealth, the video populates the museum with people of colour, portraying them in ways that contrast with the art that forms the background. Dressed in complementary suits, their confident, almost defiant expressions issue a challenge to the world. Their brazen positioning in front of one of the most famous paintings in the western world, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” breaks down the boundaries of the museum as an all white space, and reiterates their claim to its power. The video is littered with such images, and writes people of colour into a history dominated and framed by white Europeans. Beyoncé’s placement in front of classical statues likens her to the Greek and Roman goddesses they represent, reinventing the normative ideals of white centric beauty.
Other artists have drawn on similar themes in their music videos; in the video for her song, “Dust My Shoulders Off,” Chinese singer-songwriter Jane Zhang literally paints herself into the works of famous western artists. Zhang assumes the role of the woman from Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” as part of a completely different painting where she dances in a field and hops into a car, all while mouthing the words of her irreverent and catchy song. This melds into the next scene where, as the young woman from Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” she shoots a grenade launcher at the same car. Her video shakes up many of the paintings considered behemoths of western tradition, not only by inserting a Chinese woman into their midst but by making them a part of a comic spectacle. In Zhang’s video, “The Scream” is memory wiped by the men in black (of the 1997 film), and the figures in Georges-Pierre Seurat’s iconic “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” start bopping along to her music. A Chinese woman thus playfully reinvents and repurposes western traditions, making them the humorous backdrop to a lighthearted song about her life.
Accordingly, Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” not only portrays her as an all powerful deity playing with cosmic forces but positions her against backdrops that seem to be inspired by the works of female painters. Patricia Cordero pinpoints at least six artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Tamara De Lempicka, whose art influenced images in “God is a Woman.” An interesting shot which places a miniscule Grande directly below a woman’s giant widespread legs, with feet clad in wickedly high stilettos, seems to be a fun take on Frida Kahlo’s “My Birth.” The lyrics of Grande’s song reinvents the male God of the Abrahamic tradition, most powerfully in the closing shot of the video which depicts a feminist reimagining of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” While Grande, of course, plays God, Adam is pictured as a black woman, and the surrounding figures include many women of colour.
Music videos, a relatively novel art form with their combination of sound, imagery and movement, are proving to be a powerful tool in the hands of communities that have long been relegated to an inferior position within western artistic traditions. This medium is yet to be fully explored and contains numerous paths for future artistic developments.
I’m currently pursuing a masters in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. I’m particularly interested in postcolonial and feminist theory and perspectives and widening the focus of literary studies to include more diverse voices.
Edited by: Devika and Maryam Ahmed.