The Topless “Slave” and Bad Art: Michelle Obama Too?

—Spanish magazine puts Michelle Obama‘s head on a portrait of topless slave – Daily Mail—

It is the anonymity, the marginalised person-hood that cuts when you hear it “topless slave.” 

By Kamaria Muntu
Editor
29thAugust 2012, 19:03 GMT

I don’t believe there is any such creature as a slave. There are humans who are enslaved by vile and predatory agendas.  There are “humans” who violently enslave their planetary neighbours, and demonstrate not only a depravity and ignorance in their very natures, but in their savage loathing of others, they ultimately jettison their own humanity.

First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama. AP Photo

In the latest attack on the Black woman’s image – and believe me I’m so very weary of this discussion – but in the attack of the week, we find once again that even the First Lady of the United States is not immune to a racialised media ambush.  Magazine de Fuera de Serie, a publication coming out of Spain, displayed a Photoshopped “art” image of Michelle Obama on its cover.  The now infamous photo/art/painting/propaganda has Ms Obama’s face superimposed on the body of the well known painting, Portrait D’Une Négresse, by neoclassical French painter Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist – first presented in 1800.  Portrait D’Une Négresse at the time it was displayed throughout France 6 years post the abolition of French slavery, was rendered as symbol for women’s emancipation and newly freed people’s rights.

Yet this 2012 pop artist, Karine Percheron-Daniels, who did the photoshopping for a series of mixed-photography of iconic persons in controversial nude poses, has made a far less worthy statement then the one Benoist was attempting to make in her time. The closest to anything of lasting value her art may possibly bestow upon human-kind is her pedestrian self-proclaimed intention to “view famous individuals in a different way.”

Che Guevara resembles an ape, Cleopatra is stereotypically the Caucasian Liz Taylor and the President of the United States was similarly exposed in this series – but no one has been exploited in the kind of vulgarly offensive way that the First Lady; Michelle Obama has.

Daniel’s explanation of why she did this to Ms Obama is articulated in the title of the piece, Michelle Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America, but as writer Althea Legal Miller discussed in her Clutch article:

Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist: courtesy of histoire-image.org

“This image has nothing to do with acknowledging Obama’s enslaved fore-mothers, 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 too am utterly offended by the photoshopped portrait that is not only lacking in taste, but is sorely devoid of any true originality or creative vision and

hey, don’t they use that ‘put a different head on a different body’ trick in tabloid magazines and porn?

I have to take some issue with Miller’s distancing thesis as her language is divisive. I don’t believe that Ms Obama has need of extolling her “individuality” over that of the enslaved woman. Most African-American women, especially those as proud and accomplished as Michelle, see themselves not as separate but as the continuum of those female ancestors who endured the unspeakable so that we can enjoy a modicum of freedom today.

Slavery also robbed the representative enslaved Guadeloupean woman of her identity, voice and intellect.  Yet as she sits in artistic pose, beautiful, clear-eyed and visually unashamed, we who understand that there was both active and passive resistance on the part of enslaved persons, note that her quiet defiance may indeed be a form of passive resistance, a strategy employed to win our freedom from legislated bondage. 

To this end, she, Michelle, and all Black women who are descended from the enslaved African Diaspora are one.

Percheron-Daniels weird pseudo-impressionistic photographic cross-genre mess. It’s a masculinist paradigm to make the “crone” unappealing and the fact that its missing a significant phase of  womanhood (middle age) is strange. “The Three Ages of Woman” Photo courtesy of saatchionline.com

Whatever the artist’s intentions, the truth is that Black women are at risk on many levels.  We can’t mention enough how Marissa Alexander along with other innocent women have been captured by the prison industrial complex; we can’t mention enough how the cycles of poverty, homelessness and diseases we can’t afford to treat shackle us to an inferior standard of living.  Because the First Lady’s status renders her immune to this kind of slavery,

the artist sought to enslave her somehow; even if her bondage could only be secured on canvass.

The opportunistic portrait of Michelle Obama stands as reminder to us all – in a climate of continuous crimes against the Black female body and the hundreds of thousands of sisters who are sex and work trafficked;

that this should be our lot in society, captured and captive for all time.

And if that’s not what the artist intended, then her paternalistic arrogance is nothing short of amazing.

She should have asked somebody.

Michelle Obama,

the First lady of the United States of America

is an extremely regal, beautiful, sexy and accomplished

Black woman – get over it!

I mentioned earlier how weary I’ve gotten of this subject, because it seems that as a people we are using our education,  talent and brilliance in perpetual reactive mode. This extends to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who reject insensitivity, insult and bias, regardless of the form it may take.

We are forever in a Catch-22; if we don’t respond to the exploitation bait it looks as though we are not standing up for ourselves – when we do respond, we give the exploiters exactly what they want, notoriety and wealth.  How many of you even heard of the artist Karine Percheron-Daniels before the crude representation of the First Lady?  But we’ve all heard of her now.

Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Mikalene Thomas. Stunning painting using rhinestones, acrylic and enamel.

As unimpressive as Percheron-Daniels is, she will be more famous than most talented contemporary artists, and particularly contemporary Black women artists, such as Mickalene Thomas, Sam Grisham, Jacqueline Tarry, Lorna SimpsonDionne Ible, Shinique Smith, Kara Walker, Renee Cox and the countless other Black women artists that are almost never featured in our magazines, webzines or other Black media conversations.

Whereas I’m a great champion of artistic freedom; it is at the heart of why I was so eager to create Femficatio; I also think that part and parcel of the artistic journey is to understand one’s tremendous power to enlighten or arrest development. 

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to support the artists and venues that speak to the kind of aesthetic standards that call up the best in ourselves; that make us more beautifully human. If we continue to overly focus racists, misogynists and the lot; we only give them power and more importantly the kind of exposure that keeps them visible in our world.

We Must Proactively Support The Art We Want to See. The Renaissance May Not Be Televised.

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