In a move destined to go down in history as one of the dumbest and most racist things a European magazine has done to an African American person (alongside Vogue Italia’s “slave earrings” and Jackie‘s use of “niggabitch” to describe Rihanna), Spanish magazine Fuera de Serie has released a cover depicting Michelle Obama as a topless slave woman. Oh dear.
Taken from the “Famous Nudes” series by artist Karine Percheron-Daniels, the image is based on the famous work Portrait d’une Négresse, which was painted in 1800 by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. Justifications for Percheron-Daniels’ work aside, I’m not sure I can think of a less appropriate image to go along with a profile of the first lady of the United States. As Althea Legal-Miller at Clutch Magazine writes:
Let’s be clear: This image has nothing to do with acknowledging Obama’s enslaved foremothers, and everything to do with reinforcing and extending the historical denial of black women’s individuality and agency. The portrait robs Obama of her identity, voice, and intellect, and visually shackles her to a politically passive subject, resigned to an assigned role as slave. I do not support the censorship of art. However, the mass reproduction of this nude portrait on the cover of a national newspaper supplement is a legitimate concern. Of all the stock images that might have been pulled for the cover, I find the editorial decision to portray Obama as the embodiment of enslavement and colonization extremely troubling. This is all the more perplexing given that this image severely undermines the cover story article, which acknowledges the political significance of Obama and champions her intuitive and intellectual prowess. So sad, then, that this image has in some way become a part of the Spanish popular imaginary.
I don’t disagree that this was a terrible editorial decision. However, I think the painting is interesting in a visual art context, especially considering its source material’s history. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the original was painted six years after slavery was abolished in France, and became a symbol of women and black people’s rights, so maybe the Michelle Obama version has a more positive connotation than it seems to at first glance; it positions her as having inherited the struggle for equality. (Which, let’s be clear, is still going on.) Additionally, the artist says her series is intended “to offer an alternative unexpected reality, to allow the viewer to re-examine his unique subjective experience and general understanding and view the world and people in a different way.” I think it’s possible to read this painting as positing an alternate reality in which the brilliant and talented Michelle Obama is reduced to the role of a slave. What better way to show how horrible slavery was (and how horrible racism continues to be) than by putting a recognizable face on its victims?
Then again, there’s an argument to be made that the end product is an image that’s simply too offensive to carry any redeeming social value, whether it’s in an art gallery or on the cover of a magazine. What do you think?
REPOSTED FROM THE GLOSS, Writer Jamie Peck