Michelle Obama Slave Image: Racist Art?

A Spanish magazine's seminude homage to the first lady hits all the wrong notes.


(The Root) — Slavery is bad. Hadn’t you heard? The vast majority of African Americans with Southern ancestry are the descendants of slaves. Didn’t you know? And Michelle Obama, the first lady of these United States, is no exception. Were you not familiar with that narrative? If not, the Spanish publication Magazine de Fuera de Serie would like to remind you with a cover of Michelle Obama as a half-naked French slave.

“What in the entire f–k?” was my first reaction to the image when it landed in my inbox the other day. My next natural inclination, of course, was to forward it. Sort of like an electronic “smell this.”

I immediately emailed a friend — an art-history buff — to find out if this monstrosity had any roots in the great masters’ canon because I’m a nerd, and when my black body is being so unabashedly exploited in such a way, I’m positive there’s a white male behind it. Is that racist? Probably so.

“It’s definitely not trying to copy any of the European perverts who went to hang out with the native ladies back in the 19th to early 20th century (i.e., Gauguin or Picasso),” wrote back my best friend, who actually paid attention during our art humanities lecture at Columbia. “If anything, it’s copying something more pop culture-y … but I don’t know the reference. The only thing I can think of is an Olympia with the exposed breast and half-smile.”

Actually, the cover “art” is a very literal interpretation of French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist‘s Portrait d’une négresse, currently on display at the Louvre. At the time of its debut in 1800, six years after slavery was abolished in France, the painting was both revolutionary and typical. It’s often lauded as dealing directly with the intersection of taboo subjects (especially when tackled by a female painter) of race, gender and politics. It’s a radical commentary on both freedom and exploitation. Then again, the “negress” has no name, no identity beyond her skin color.

But that was more than two centuries ago. Painting the first lady as a former French slave swathed just barely in the American flag is not what’s popping in 2012. According to the New York Daily News, the artist behind the magazine cover and other “famous nudes,” Karine Percheron-Daniels, is under the impression that Mrs. Obama will appreciate the hack Photoshop job. “I’m sure Obama would love it,” Percheron-Daniels said, “and I hope that someday she can see it.”