Michelle Obama Slave Image: Racist Art?

Illustration for article titled Michelle Obama Slave Image: Racist Art?

(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."

I'm going to go out on a very sane limb here and argue that Michelle Obama will probably not love this. Since the Hottentot Venuses, African women whose "exotic" features were displayed like animals in zoos in 19th-century Europe, black women's bodies have been fetishized. Their bodies weren't perceived to have emotions or feelings. They were the physical embodiment of objectification. Sure, the Portrait d'une négresse seemed to reach beyond that narrative, but it lay firmly in the era of battling ideologies over a black woman's naked body, like public turf and not private property.


So literally painting one of the most recognizable black women into that canon is an obvious no-no. It's why Michelle Obama's nude seems more insidious than Percheron-Daniels' Photoshops of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Di. Those two women have the security blanket of a history that ostensibly sought to protect their white bodies. Michelle Obama and women who look like her have none of that.

But why should you care? I'd never heard of Magazine de Fuera de Serie before its offensive cover landed in my inbox. I don't have to pass it at the newsstands on my way to the subway or flip through it while under the dryer at the beauty salon. It's not on my radar, but then again, it is.


I have to live in an increasingly shrinking world in the skin I was given. I've been to Europe more than once and experienced "the eyes" that black women whisper about. The stares follow you from plaza to café to discotheque — curious, unblinking and, most of all, hungry.

Once while in Paris with my bestie (the same art-history nerd I made e-smell the stench of Michelle's Portrait d'une négresse), a Frenchmen, who looked a lot like Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II, demanded I go to his "most VIP" club later that night. When I finally relented, he said the bouncers would take care of me at the door, which sounded scarier, considering his doppelgänger. I hesitated and he pressed on.


"Two black guys. Two huge blacks? You know? Niggazzz."

I was too shocked to shoot up the place. Instead we asked him why he thought calling black people "n—gers" was OK.


"It's OK, you know, because it's France."

No, I didn't know. I had no idea, but I was learning that being black abroad is a lot like being black in America, but the nuances don't translate. It's where racism is blunt and unabashed. It might sound different in French or Spanish, but it's the same and should be decried just as loudly, whether it's happening down the street or thousands of miles away.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.