What on earth do Beyoncé, this sphinx, and Napoléon have in common?

Thinking in Public
The Great Sphinx of Tanis, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

They’re all featured in “Apeshit”–a music video dropped this past weekend during Beyoncé and JAY-Z Carter’s tour. The video introduced fans to Everything is Love, a collaborative album celebrating black identity and fame in 2018 America. “Apeshit” was filmed inside the Louvre museum in front of statutes like “The Great Sphinx of Tanis” and paintings like “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon” by David. Why would two American music moguls shoot a music video glorifying blackness in an iconic French museum?

A sphinx is a ferocious, powerful mythical creature, represented with a lion’s body and a king’s head. The Great Sphinx of Tanis may date to as early as 2600 BC. Inscribed are the names of Pharaohs Ammenemes II, Merneptah, and Shoshenq I. For centuries, the Egyptian empire thrived because of their cultural advances and strategic location in Northern Africa.

The Sphinx’s current home in the Louvre reflects France’s history of imperialism. A fortress-turned-palace for the French monarchy, the museum contains 380,000 objects of art, including the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Africa.

From 1798 to 1801 General Napoléon Bonaparte led a military campaign in Egypt and Syria to “protect” trade interests. Although the campaign ultimately failed, it sparked French interest in Egyptian culture, and was a pivotal moment in Napoléon’s trajectory to Emperor. On December 2, 1804, Napoléon infamously crowned himself (traditionally the Pope would crown the monarch) during his coronation ceremony. Napoléon then turned and crowned his wife, Empress Josephine. Painter David captured this moment in a mural-sized painting.

It is no coincidence that the century following Napoléon’s reign marked the height of global imperialism and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Natural selection theorized our closest ancestors were apes. Darwin’s theory built upon previous European thought that believed races were different species, and that Africans were closer to apes than Europeans. This false claim reinforced tropes of European superiority.  Even now, “Apeshit” directly rejects this centuries-old narrative of inferiority.

In the video, Beyoncé dances in front of David’s neoclassical painting of Napoléon, clasping hands with a line of black female dancers. Their choreographed movement and body-affirming clothing functions as a bold celebration of blackness. Beyoncé redirects the viewer’s gaze away from the towering tableau, dethroning Napoléon. There is a new monarch, and her lineage is not European, but African.

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