On newsstands across Spain, Michelle Obama can be seen gracing the August 2012 cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie, a lifestyle supplement to the newspaper Expansión. She is seated on a chair draped in the American flag, partially nude in slave attire, complete with one of Aunt Jemima’s chicer headscarves. Perhaps because it seems so obviously offensive, the mind attempts to rationalize; “Did this get lost in translation, or is this as racist as I think?”
As a black British woman, born and raised in London, I am acutely aware of other recent European racist train wrecks concerning the representation of black womanhood: the Dutch magazine Jackie “deconstructing” Rihanna’s style under the obscene headline “De Niggabitch” and Sweden’s minister of culture cutting into a cake depicting a caricature of a naked black woman to name but two. Unfortunately, this Michelle Obama/Slave Woman mash-up sees Europe produce yet another epic fail in black female representation.
The magazine cover for the feature article “Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Dueña De América” (Michelle Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America) is the brainchild of white French/English fine artist Karine Percheron-Daniels. Her mixed-media portrait superimposes Obama’s head onto the famous art-historical body of an African Guadeloupean female slave painted by French artist Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist in 1800.
Percheron-Daniels’ portrait, First Lady, was not commissioned for the Spanish magazine cover, but is part of a larger series of “famous nudes” that includes Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II, Abraham Lincoln, and President Barack Obama. In defense of her controversial series, the artist argues that she offers the viewer an “alternative unexpected reality” that allows us to “view famous individuals in a different way.”
But what does the composite of Obama’s face with the nude body of a nameless slave woman say about the way we have been invited to “view” the first lady and, by extension, black female communities of the diaspora?
According to Percheron-Daniels, her decision to transform Benoist’s black “negress” into Obama was “for obvious reasons” that she chose to leave unspecified. Based on such obvious (read: unchecked racist ideology) logic, Percheron-Daniels vacates Obama, and fills in a 19th century European fantasy, which evokes a black female body that can be dominated and possessed, especially sexually. To add insult to injury, Percheron-Daniels declares in blissful ignorance, “I’m sure Obama would love it, and I hope that someday she can see it.”
Let’s be clear: This image has nothing to do with acknowledging Obama’s enslaved foremothers, and everything to do with reinforcing and extending the historical denial of black women’s individuality and agency. The portrait robs Obama of her identity, voice, and intellect, and visually shackles her to a politically passive subject, resigned to an assigned role as slave. I do not support the censorship of art. However, the mass reproduction of this nude portrait on the cover of a national newspaper supplement is a legitimate concern. Of all the stock images that might have been pulled for the cover, I find the editorial decision to portray Obama as the embodiment of enslavement and colonization extremely troubling. This is all the more perplexing given that this image severely undermines the cover story article, which acknowledges the political significance of Obama and champions her intuitive and intellectual prowess. So sad, then, that this image has in some way become a part of the Spanish popular imaginary.
We must be vigilant. The history of our image in Western art is deeply rooted in representations of our nude or semi-clothed bodies. These images – largely determined by stereotypes used to legitimize racial and gender oppression – speak to a painful history of exploitation and erotic objectification, which continues to manifest in multiple contexts across the black female diaspora.