“To The Left”
Beyoncé, Awol Erizku, and the Limitations of Art History
On February 1, 2017 Beyoncé gave the world a new work of art. We learned via an Instagram post from the celebrity’s personal account that the she was pregnant with twins. Not only was this image, photographed by artist Awol Erizku, an announcement of twins but also an announcement of a new moment in the history of art: a moment marked by the digital as well as by blackness.
Guided by Erizku’s online photographic work, Beyoncé’s pregnancy image transcends the materiality of the photograph and the physical art object. She implodes our understanding of the democratizing abilities of photography through digital pixels. The photograph also aligns with Erizku’s artistic missions: meditations on the conceptual in 21st century social media applications and challenges to the limited representations of Black bodies in art spaces.
While completing his M.F.A at Yale, the Ethiopian born, but Bronx raised Erizku began to produce photographs that reimagine canonical artworks, such as Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, but with black models and titles appropriately adjusted according to the props: Girl with the Bamboo Earring and Lady with a Pitbull. Erizku is scrupulous in his choice of subject and attention to pose; mirroring the original artworks in exact figural posturing but differentiating through fashion, objects, and melanin. I propose, however, that Beyoncé’s maternity photograph is distinct from his early work for her image is merely in conversation with historical artworks rather than re-creating or re-visioning.
Beyoncé does not substitute. While she nods to her predecessors, she does not stand in, she is the conception.
This is most notable in the lack of direct references within the maternity photograph. There is no title or untitled designation for the image, complicating art historians trained ways of identification and art genealogies. The photograph diverges from a mimetic visualization of an iconic artwork because; simply put, the composition does not imitate, it borrows.
This concept of borrowing is entrenched in Black America. A people wrenched from their homeland and forced to seek out space, place, and identity in the United States, Black American culture originated through creative amalgamation of disparate cultures. Black culture’s inventiveness and singularity then became one of the greatest sources for appropriation. Thus, Beyoncé’s personal declarations of Blackness, visually and musically, are inextricably bound to this history.
Working with the 28-year-old Erizku, an artist fluent in the social media language of his generation, Beyoncé engages with his theories of the social media app: “That is Instagram — just appropriating what’s already out there by millions and just pressing it back out.” The maternity image, however, does not take from art history or Instagram in the manner that Erizku suggests. Their photograph is certainly in visual dialogue with the millions but appropriates from neither of the aforementioned spaces.
While the luscious flora and fauna that vibrantly surround Beyoncé might be similar to various 17th-century Dutch Madonna in Floral Wreath depictions, the Virgin of Guadalupe, or numerous other paintings in the extensive archive of Marian paintings, Beyoncé’s very presence and Erizku’s aesthetic ingenuity mark the photograph’s moment of unique inception. Her photograph utilizes the platform to hint towards recognizable aesthetic tropes while ultimately giving birth to the new.
Beyoncé dons a translucent veil that falls over her torso and trails behind her. Her pregnant belly is framed by an Agent Provacateur scalloped plum bra with hints of light pink ribbons and Viviara’s aptly titled Dauphine, powder blue panty. She wears lingerie and nothing else. Her brown skin, rouge lipstick, and cascading curls are distinctly visible. This woman is not the Madonna of art history. Both Mary and Beyoncé are marked by their antithetical sexuality and race: virginity and hypersexuality, whiteness and blackness. While Beyoncé can never shed the stigma of the oversexed Black female, as Nicole Fleetwood has outlined in her writings on the excess of flesh, she strategically crafts a sexuality in attempts to control and profit from her image reception.
Beyoncé assuredly rejects the innocence and modesty of the Virgin Mary, casts herself as a sexual being, and displays her racial signifiers not unlike the work of Black female photographers such as Renée Cox. Beyoncé could never truly be within the exclusive lineage of Virgin Mary artworks because she is Black. She is denied but also choses to deny herself admittance into Marian visual histories, while still insisting on her position within Black history and a Black art history. She astutely posted the photograph on the first day of Black History Month and worked with Erizku, a fellow Black artist invested in depictions of Black bodies.
Throughout Erizku’s body of work there is a keen interest in the hand, notably the hands of women of color, which might suggest an emphasis on Beyoncé’s hands in the maternity photograph. Placing hands on the womb is certainly a generic pose, but Beyoncé, who typically flaunts her jeweled adornments, wears no rings or bracelets. Her nude, stiletto manicure also departs from the brightly polished manicured hands of Erizku’s previous work. But despite its neutrality, her left hand rests on the focal point of the image: the womb. Visible on her left finger is her well-known IV, her matching tattoo with husband Shawn Corey Carter, Jay-Z. Outside of the visual evidence of their procreation and “The Carters” as the signature to the Instagram caption, Jay-Z has no presence in this photograph or in any of the published pregnancy photographs. Through his exclusion, the photograph marks a moment to hierarchize Beyoncé, Black motherhood, and Black female representations through a boundless, virtual image.
Within 8 hours of posting the pregnancy announcement Beyoncé broke the Guinness World Record for Most Liked Image on Instagram — it presently has just over 10.8 million likes. A Black woman now marks this moment in history while at the same time holding a firm position in the top five most followed Instagram accounts with her approximately 98 million followers. Art institutions cannot match such public audiences.
In the past years the most popular art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre have annual visitors at around 6.3 million and 7.3 million respectively. Their artwork could never have receptions such as Beyoncé’s photographs. Photography, however, has long challenged the institutions in its relationship to the masses. The medium has long been touted as a democratizing art form because of its accessibility, affordability, and availability to everyone. With the advent of digital photography, and social media applications like Instagram, the instantaneity of dissemination and shear number of participants has uprooted any preconceived notions of imagery and public viewership. The limitations of the gallery wall have been exponentially superseded.
In several interviews, Erizku highlighted his ongoing interest in “bridging the huge gap that exists between ‘High Art’ and ‘The Street’” and making artwork more accessible to a wider audience, for those that might have “no reference of art history.” Consolidating Black life with the exclusive history of art brings forth the potential for a universalizing visual aesthetic. Using Beyoncé’s image to draw connections is familiar to Erizku, having previously made a work of art that references these disparate areas: Beyoncé, material culture; Marcel DuChamp’s readymades; Jay-Z’s rap lyrics on Beyoncé and art; and Black beards.
The maternity photograph is once again a culmination of visual culture through art. The pregnant Beyoncé kneels on what appears to be a thin bed of bright yellow rose petals. The yellow along with the pinks and blue of her lingerie are the quintessential colors of heteronormative pregnancy: pigments to symbolize the fetuses known or unknown gender assignment. A later image was posted on Beyoncé’s website that illustrates the same composition of the Instagram post but with an expanded viewpoint. By making this image public, Beyoncé voluntarily exposes the fabrication of the scene: a crumpled back drop, the wrinkled tulle of her veil, bad lighting, and a general sense of the awkwardness of a pregnant woman attempting to pose while kneeling.
Krista Thompson’s text Shine illuminates the significance of the backdrop, suggesting its importance in Beyoncé’s pregnancy photographs. In these images, one might be reminded of the harsh, poorly lit, and impersonal but popular space of a mall or street photography studio. The familiarity of this type of maternity image, experienced and subsequently shared by scores of pregnant women, exemplifies the potential for a multiplicity of narratives within the photograph. As millions of individuals held in their cellphones Beyoncé’s digital photograph they had access to the familiar, the iconic, and the historic. They were witnesses to the fusion of art history, Black culture, high fashion, and everyday life.
Earlier in his career, Erizku was represented by the now closed Hasted Kraeutler gallery. In a press release for one of his solo exhibitions, the gallery wrote that Erizku’s work aims to “update key canonical and contemporary works in Western art” potentially aligning him with other popular contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Mikalene Thomas. This concept of the “update,” however, improperly lends complete authority to elite art history and ignores what Erizku designates, “the Street.” Erizku and Beyoncé’s photographic intervention puts pressure on the present history of art.
The maternity photograph exposes art history’s failure to simultaneously comment on the canon, blackness, and the immeasurable audiences of a digital art world. There is not yet an art history of Instagram nor an art history that continuously and seamlessly permeates Western art and Black popular culture and representation. And we need it. Beyoncé and Erizku’s photograph cannot be hung in the gallery; it is not to be physically bought, sold, and transported; nor will it be framed and gingerly placed on the walls of the museum. This image was not for art world spaces; it exists digitally. So, for now art history must move to the left and let Instagram and its users take over.