When my sister and I decided to visit the Louvre in late August, days before I officially began my semester at NYU Paris, we were overly ambitious with our exploratory goals. Arriving at the museum just two and a half hours before closing, we assumed we would be able to complete a walking tour centered on Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s music video for “APESH*T.” Notoriously, the couple rented out the museum to shoot the thought-provoking musical film, an act which exhibited the unique magnitude of their cultural prowess and power in the modern age. The video, launched as a surprise release in June, was lauded by critics for its incorporation of a wide range of the institution’s historical pieces as a vessel for sociopolitical commentary about black representation in the context of normatively white societies.
Shortly after the video was released, art historian Alexandra Thomas noted in a Time Magazine interview that “people – especially white people, European and American people – go to [The Louvre to] really romanticize empire, to think about genealogies of white male artists, and then we have Beyoncé, a black woman, and her husband, dancing around in the Louvre…”
As people of color, and specifically, as Indians, my sister and I have a complicated relationship with the art history of Western Europe. It is not easy for us to observe and analyze artworks produced during the colonial era without contending with how we might have factored into the creative narratives we witness—would we have been servants? Would we have been whitewashed subjects of the ethnocentric gaze? Would we have been slaves? For black people, these perceptive dilemmas are even more challenging and complex given the uniquely brutal history of hierarchical oppression that specifically targets their community. In 2018, for any truly global citizen, a museum-going experience which excludes such acknowledgment feels anemic at best.
Consequently, when we decided to sightsee in Paris, we knew we wanted to do so with an intention that informed our identities, as opposed to just passively admiring the aesthetically pristine productions of dead white men. Aiming to pinpoint the pieces featured in the “APESH*T” video seemed like the ideal way to navigate the Louvre, and the museum seemed to provide the resources to trace a specific path.
As soon as we entered the first exhibit, we realized how lofty our goal was. The Louvre spans an area of over 780,000 square feet, and the artworks included in the tour were listed in chronological order as featured in the video as opposed to in an order that was spatially progressive. Within minutes, we got lost, seemingly unable to evade expansive rooms centered on the ornamented furniture of renaissance era kings, classical Italian landscapes and antiquated Grecian sculptures. Before we knew it, it was 45 minutes before closing, and we had barely scratched the surface of viewing the set of pieces we wanted to see.
We knew we had to be strategic in selecting which artworks to get to in our limited time. Instinctively, we settled on the one that had made the most profound impression on us while watching the video: “Portrait of a Black Woman” by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. After a seemingly endless series of missteps, slow elevator rides, exhausting staircases and confusing words of guidance in both French and English from museum employees, we arrived at the object of our desire just minutes before the museum shut down for the day. Completely out of breath, we dissected every stroke of the canvas in silence, accompanied by a family who clearly shared the same intention as we did. We stood there, an ensemble, grateful to be facing the profile of the woman we had been searching for for what felt like hours.
There is something to be said for the fact that it took us so long to find her. There is something to be said for the fact that the museum quietly changed the name of the painting to rectify the implications of the original title that its white creator imparted on it: “Portrait of a Negress.” There is something to be said for the fact that no museum signposts led the way to it, or any other art pieces portraying people of color, instead directing visitors’ attention to the Mona Lisa and Liberty Leading the People. There is something to be said for the fact that hers was the only dark face in the room, nestled in a wing of the museum so off-center that you’d have to be explicitly seeking her out in order to even know of her existence. I, for one, am so thankful that I had the chance to see her. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long. Even with the endorsement of the Carters, the woman in the painting will continue to go unnoticed by the majority of museumgoers.
As soon as we left the museum, we sat on a bank overlooking the river Seine, bathing in a cotton candy Parisian sunset which enveloped the historical European metropolis and all of its multicultural citizens. In my black Moleskine notebook, equipped with several maps of the city, I jotted down the following poem:
portrait of a black woman
pas la bas
venus de milo
in the corner
where we started
where are we?
where is she?
where are you?
there she is
they look like her
they block the view
they are the view
the struggle worth
maze no more