Bey Repping the Orisha Like a Bawse: Photoshoot Demands the Decolonization of Culture and Knowledge

08 Feb
Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

Beyonce Knolwe’s pregnancy announcement, which she made over a week ago, has inspired debate. The debate has been about the pregnancy itself and the manner in which she made the announcement. Knowles enlisted the expertise of the tremendously talented Ethiopian-American photographer, Awol Erizku to conduct a photoshoot, featuring herself, her five year old daughter Blue Ivy, the unborn twins and a vibrant festival of colour and flora which almost reminds one of Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou’s famously colourful oeuvre. The commentary has ranged from praise to criticism (read: mainly white women’s tears and haterade on tap) to “objective” analysis and while, as a non-fan (but admirer nonetheless), my interest in this was inspired by this commentary emerging from various social media platforms and news outlets, it is in fact, the rather lacking and somewhat problematic commentary coming from certain quarters of the art academe that has motivated this article.

The stunning Surrealist images produced by the artists not only invite the observer to join in the celebration of the new life growing inside Knowles’ womb but they compel one to dive into the world of a resilient Afro-spirituality long buried deep in colonial religion and whose expression is condemned to the fringes of social and epistemic consciousness. This expulsion becomes quite apparent when one interrogates the observations and conversations that have ensued post release, and more particularly the ones getting the most attention from mainstream publications.

In an article by Kate Storey, academics Dennis Geronimous and Jim Nikas gave their insights on the symbolism captured in Beyonce and Erizku’s master piece of a photoshoot. The complete erasure of the rather distinct influence of Afrikan Spirituality (Ifá to be precise) in the symbolism was palpably strong in the piece and yet it was also woefully unsurprising because, well, what are black people after all, if not non-beings without consciousness and therefore without religion? I must hasten to say here that I don’t dispute the presence of a Latinx spiritual influence (in fact, I seek to expand on its analysis) and even some European artistic influence as per [art history] analysis in the piece. It is precisely because there has been a reference made to Latinx spirituality that religious cultures such as Santería in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil, for example; that are syncretisations of Ifá /Yoruba Religion (most notably) and other West and Central Afrikan spiritualties with Catholicism for the express purposes of conversion (on the part of the colonising/enslaving oppressor) and protection and preservation (on the part of the oppressed Afrikans) that they should have been the logical destination of Niko’s analysis, for instance. Most of the images in the shoot are undeniably deeply rooted in these religious systems through the use of symbols representing the Orisha, in all their various representations across the Black Atlantic.

In an equal world, that is to say, a world where the black occupies their place in it as a human versus the ontology of the anti-human ascribed to them, I’d have expected the experts called for comment as well as the journalist who sought out their opinions to have known this because as far as Surrealist art goes, this is probably the most direct representation of a culture and a philosophy but alas, we do not live in such a world so it is no wonder that they do not know or perhaps even worse, they do know but choose to disregard it because it is not considered “Universal”.

Afro-Portuguese writer, theorist and interdisciplinary artist, Grada Kilomba captures this paradigm quite beautifully in her book Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism when she highlights that the concepts of knowledge and science are “intrinsically linked to power and racial authority” and emphasizes this point through a series of questions around what knowledge is accepted as such, who creates it and who it is meant for? She also asks “who is at the centre” and who is left outside at the margins. Kilomba defines the centre as the core of the academic space, which she claims, and rightly so, is “not a neutral location”. Her postulations help us understand why it is that despite the glaring presence of Ifá as the motif of Bey’s work in both Lemonade and the photo shoot, the expert voices that have been solicited thus far still erase it from this “centre”.

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku


Image by Yumie Esnard

A more well-rounded analysis would not have just acknowledged the obvious link to Eurocentric deities such as Venus and Flora as was the case in the aforementioned piece but would have made the necessary connections between these deities with the Vierges Niores (Black Madonnas) quite prominent in the Caribbean and South America. Surrealist artists from the region, such as Wilfredo Lam (Cuba), for instance, have long been capturing this imagery in a commitment to ensure the ongoing portrayal and revival of the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture.

Working Title/Artist: Wilfredo Lam Jungle Goddess Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 11 Working Date: 1942 mma digital photo #DP102750

Working Title/Artist: Wilfredo Lam Goddess with Foliage
Department: Modern Art
HB/TOA Date Code: 11
Working Date: 1942
mma digital photo #DP102750

Another more obvious hint that the analysis should have looked a little more South of the globe is the fact that the chosen date, i.e. the 2nd of February, for the big reveal is also the day set aside in Salvador, Bahia Brazil to celebrate one of the main Orishas, who also features rather prominently in both Beyoncé’s video album Lemonade and her shoot – Yemaya or Iemanjá. Yemaya is the Orisha of the seas and oceans, fertility, motherhood, safety of children, protection, love and healing in Ifá/Yoruba Religion, Santería and Candomblé cultures across the Black Atlantic. She is also the mother of all the Orisha in Yoruba culture’s Ifá/Yoruba Religion and its variations in the Caribbean, where she is also known as the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Regla or Virgin of Regla.

Image by Mikael Quites

Image by Mikael Quites

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

Elizabeth Perez, in her book The Virgin In The Mirror: Reading Images Of A Black Madonna Through The Lens Of Afro-Cuban Women’s Experiences (2010) writes:

“Affectionately called La Negrita, Regla is the only Marian image in Cuba considered to be black, and Yemayá is the only spirit, or oricha, explicitly described as such by devotees.”

As we know all too well, racism’s functionality necessitates the erasure of black people and more specifically the womxn, which is why when Ethiopian-American artist and cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, says in a conversation with bell hooks, that “the camera automatically functions as a white gaze” even when it is a black person who stands behind the camera, as is the case here with Erizku, it makes complete sense that Yemaya, Osun and the other Orisha are completely absent from the critical narrative. This point by Jafa coupled with Regla’s Blackness undoubtedly explains why the likes of Nikas and Geronimous completely ignored the metacommentary of Afro-spirituality embedded throughout the preceding video album, Lemonade, and the recent photoshoot. This war on Africannisms is made even more obvious in Perez’s book when she notes that La Negrita has often been overlooked by scholars who instead, opt to fetishizingly focus on the Cuban copper-coloured Mulatta Virgen de la Caridad whose equivalent in Mexico would be, as referenced by Nikas, the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Observed through a less anti-black and by extension, anti- black aesthetic lens, the photoshoot as well as Lemonade can be seen as more than just an ode to the Orisha – with links to Santería or Candomblé specifically and Ifá/Yoruba Religion as the sine qua non – but an actual performance of ceremony. Various Orisha are worshipped at different points of Lemonade and in the photoshoot. For example, in the photoshoot, Beyonce acknowledges Orisha Osun with the yellow scarf and the water which also captures the spirit Yemaya. The Black Madonna symbolism drawn from the Caribbean religious chromolithographs (which the Lucumí, for instance, considered to be in line with the Yoruba aesthetic codes that required anthropomorphic imagery for the deities) found in many a (mostly working class) Afro-Latinx homes across the Catholic Black Atlantic, captures Yemaya. She also acknowledges the Orisha Sango, the father of Osun’s twins with the red scarf, Orisha Ibeji (Sango and Osun’s twins) with the bare/exposed belly where her and husband Jay Z’s twins are nested who was (while Ibeji is a set of twins, they are considered as one entity) taken in and raised by Yemaya when Osun cast them away after being accused of witchcraft for giving birth to twins.

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

The fact that Beyonce chose to release the image heralding the news on the 2nd of February as opposed to the 1st day of the (Black History) month of February as well as stick to this motif from Lemonade, right through to the photoshoot, demonstrates a certain level of consciousness (and perhaps even genuine veneration) of the spiritual and religious implications of said motif. Many artists and thinkers before her have made use of Surrealism as a weapon of resistance against imperialism and these include Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. Aimé Césaire, in an interview in 1967, characterized Surrealism as “a process of disalienation” that was both aesthetic and political vanguardism and Suzanne, in her work, Surrealism and Us: 1943, writes:

Thus, far from contradicting, diluting, or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals.

With this magnificent representation and documentation of Afro-spiritual/theological aesthetics, Beyonce Knowles and Awol Erizku gesture, be it deliberately or serendipitously, towards acts of further dissention in the world of art. As writer Firoze Manji states in his article on Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral “for Cabral, and also for Fanon, culture is not some aesthetic artefact, but an expression of history, the foundation of liberation, and a means to resist domination. At heart, culture is subversive”. This photoshoot demands a decolonisation, not just of art/culture but of all knowledge so as to ensure the black and brown world’s true emancipation.

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 8, 2017 in Uncategorized


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: