From a non-Western perspective, one may see Mars as representing Europe, as projecting the Freudian id of British colonists to reminding us of what irreparable damage the sleeping (dead) colonizers have done. Mars, in his reclining state, has become so familiar with exploiting Venus (Africa), that he doesn’t even need to be fully awake to do so. Ooooota Adepo shares her feelings about Africans having travel restrictions and having to pay extra fees just to visit their own country, whilst UK citizens are clearly favoured over Africans, getting into African countries Visa-free, and with no extra fees. Venus has also been interpreted to be in a stance of resignation, as if the beginning of her marriage to colonist Mars is the end of the glory of Africa. In the Old Testament, the common compromise for having raped a woman was to marry her, and a true marriage had only occurred after sexual intercourse, not in a ceremony. Maybe the ‘Rape of Africa’ has given African countries no choice but to marry their European colonizers for their recovery or self-worth. Adepo describes post-colonised African countries as being ‘tethered’ to their post-colonizers, as if invisible latches from Britain to Africa still exist in the spiritual realm. This propels me to ask the question; does the unforgotten legacy of Britain keep post-colonial countries metaphysically bound?
By investigating Venus’ false serenity, one can imply she is held hostage but cannot display her fear. While faced with threat, Venus’ smile is coerced, as if she is televised live and reads from a transcript of stage directions. LaChapelle makes a metaphorical statement; Venus’ coerced composure is the epitome of Africa’s coerced smile while the people face political, economic and social pressures, and within this coercion is a cry for help. Another evaluation I have made about Venus is that the distance between her and Mars in the painting makes her appear rather independent from Mars; in Botticelli’s painting, the married couple are closer together. She represents Africa according to LaChapelle, but at the same time is independent of her duty to do so. Africa is so vast in diversity that for a single model to represent the whole of everything, whether good or bad in Africa would be irrational. To incur a balance, David LaChapelle juxtaposes a goat, a chicken and the mining ground to backdrop the ornamented Venus. These lowly farm animals do not compare to the status of aristocratic and mythical Venus, yet they work as co-representatives of Africa, instead of Venus alone. Venus’ distance to Mars, regarding her gender, race, marital status and physical space is significant in LaChapelle’s painting; it is a clear analogy of the way colonies worked. It was important for the reputation of Britain that nobody was to be a slave in Britain, which is why slavery was present in her colonies, far away from Europe. The West Africans that were brought to the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica to work on sugar plantations were distant from the source of their enslavement. Sierra-Leone, once a crown colony of Britain yet very distant, was the first settlement for freed slaves across Africa. Sara Forbes Bonnet, although a captive in West-Africa by King Ghezo of Dahomey, became a free woman and a princess in Britain as soon as she was adopted by Queen Victoria, a distance of status.
When discussing ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, 2009, LaChapelle says ‘there are bad people in good places’ like the corrupt catholic church, ‘it’s to big’ of a subject, and ‘to condemn the whole thing – is like condemning a nation; you can’t’.
Likewise, African colonization itself is ‘too big’ of a subject to simplify into a single analogy which is half-draped Venus in beautiful make-up and jewellery. It is up to the viewer to judge how successfully Venus represents the African leaders whom sold their people like King Ghezo, or how well she portrays the co-existing of corrupt Africans with good, ethical Africans who are exploited, the ‘bad people in good places’. Zora Neale Hurston quotes from the 1942 ‘Dust Tracks on a Road’ that ‘my people had sold me’ and ‘the white people had bought me’.
Alternatively, Venus is more than a subject of analogy; she is a famous Black-British model, one of her kind to be so internationally acknowledged. It is ironic that Mars does not share the same quality; the model LaChapelle has chosen for Mars is not easily recognised or is as famous as Campbell. As LaChapelle has such a passion for female representation, this may be a state of patriarchal decolonisation. LaChapelle wishes we could ‘go back to the matriarchy’, the maternal rule over socio-economic world systems, as he briefly mentions during his auction lecture. Dwelling long upon the idea that regions ruled by patriarchal authorities have always faced the consequences of greed and war, he believes a matriarchy would be a much more peaceful socio-economy to live in. In my opinion, his views sound very feminist, helping me to deduce why Naomi Campbell personifies Africa instead of a black male model.
LaChapelle has somehow found a way to intertwine the internalised pain of African woman confined in patriarchal traditions with the collective suffering of continent Africa. Women have a substantially stronger representation than African men in LaChapelle’s painting, possibly because their cries for societal change are louder than men’s. Fed up women of Kenya initialised a movement, creating a village in the Samburu district named ‘Umoja’ village founded in 1990, where no men are allowed. Rebecca Lolosoli, the matriarch of Umoja, is a woman’s rights activist who began speaking up about the rape of women by British soldiers training near her home. Not only have the women oppressively suffered from British colonialism and racism, but they have doubly suffered from age-old African traditions endorsing the casual abuse of woman in all ways: bigamy, Female genital mutilation, casual rape under rape culture, rape as a tactic of war, forced marriage, domestic violence, neglect, cheap labour, human trafficking and many more practices.
In Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Said highlights British economist Michael Barratt Brown’s argument, that ‘imperialism is still without question a most powerful force’, in which ‘less economically developed lands are subjected to the more economically developed’. Currently, many African countries are economically under-developed, making these countries subjected to the western world’s methods of neo-imperialism. However, Nigerian economist Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu disagrees that Africa’s future is ‘automatic’ or on auto pilot, stressing the necessity of innovation through science and technology as a strategy of strengthening Africa’s economy. In the year 2000, Moghalu expresses his irritation with ‘The Hopeless Continent’ as a headline for The Economist, referring to Africa. Bart-Williams expresses a similar irritation, defaming Oxfam and other Eurocentric charities that paint Africa in a negative light of poverty and false self-pity. LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’, although making a critical statement through its dystopian aura, supports Moghalu’s outrage. From a non-western perspective, one may see the reason for social and economic instability is because of African people’s primitive values, not because of European colonization. Unless women are respected and treated equally, the African socio-economy will never evolve, civil wars will continue, and the people will constantly be divided against themselves. LaChapelle lays out an alternative roadmap to the optimistic one of Moghalu; this is done intentionally, because David LaChapelle seeks to provoke a potentially sleeping nation that is the African community in all countries, subjected by the choices of their governments. Ultimately, he wants us to see a picture of resignation, of what Africa looks like in fifty years if their governments and local communities remain passive about innovative socio-economic change, like the platonic wife Venus in front of sleeping Mars. Most importantly, I believe his artwork is advocating mutual blame if Africa does face an apocalyptic collapse; the blame is on both African governments and European colonial damage.
During LaChapelle’s 2010 exhibition at the Robilant + Voena gallery, the reaction of some African American men and women to the artwork was negative, as it seemed to stem pain, and remind them of the same global issues they did not want to be reminded of. I could best describe the reaction of those African American people as a colonial posttraumatic stress disorder. After a traumatic experience, like sexual assault or physical abuse in which ‘Rape’ of Africa suggests, the brain shuts down memories linked to the experience as a way of defence and self-preservation. African American audiences, and Black British audiences may choose not to ponder on the contextual history of ‘Rape of Africa’ for what it is, because of the deep series of traumatic events Africa has collectively suffered; history is too painful to resume. Not only has the continent been historically targeted as the treasure pot for commodity and slave trade for military advances, but within the diaspora of decolonization the zeal for continental transformation has been sucked out of society. Moghalu describes a large number of Africans as so ‘despondent’ from civil wars, coups d’état, pandemics and ‘puny economics’, to the point that they have given up on their own continent, seeing it as ‘beyond redemption’. The presentation of Venus in ‘Rape of Africa’ supports Moghalu’s evaluation. Not only is her gown torn to symbolize she has been raped (like Tamar’s torn robes after being raped), it is a lilac colour. Purple was such a rich colour of status and wealth that Julius Caesar restricted its use to people of aristocratic status. Queen Elizabeth I also forbad the wearing of purple unless one was a close member to the royal family. Seeing lilac, a faded purple, implies that the regality, wealth and glory of Africa has faded beyond redemption, as much as African people are giving up on their continent. This concept marks the beginning of Africa’s dystopian apocalypse.
Former slaves of West Africa, the Maroons of Jamaica are not only linked to colonial Britain, but also to colonial Sierra Leone; the Maroons of Jamaica settled in Sierra Leone, becoming part of the krio population. The dialect of Jamaica is Patois, which is also comprised of broken English like Krio. Defeated Maroons of Trelawny were transported to Nova Scotia, then from that location they were shipped to Sierra Leone. As their colony, Britain prized Jamaica most for its sugar produce. During the boom of the sugar economy, plantation owners in Jamaica worked slaves to the point that the soil became too exhausted to grow more sugar, foreshadowing a decline of business in the future decades. Within the era of slave abolition, business would decline. British slave owners had even tried everything to supress Jamaicans of the land, coming up with pro-slavery claims that would keep the sugar business running. One of these claims was: ‘without the whip’, the endurance of hard labour on the plantations, Africans would refuse to work for the betterment of themselves or for their masters. They would sink into idleness and moral corruption . Jamaicans worked hard to cultivate, build up their new settlement on the island. Olusoga defames famous pro-slavery writers like Edward Long and Thomas Carlyle for coming up with brainwashing theories in an attempt to rape the very identity of Africans. If it wasn’t enough to rape Africa’s precious resources, to rape their people through the slave trade, rape their young girls and women, rape their language and culture, Carlyle wanted to rape the identity of the ‘two legged cattle’ as he called Africans. He wanted to rape their very minds. As he later wrote directly to freed black people ‘You are not “slaves” now’, but ‘will have to be servants to the whites’, just as the ‘more foolish of us to the more wise’. Pro-slavery writers and colonialists like him had to resort to the mental colonization of Africans. As a result of British colonization, Jamaicans struggle for identity up until this very day; many Jamaicans refuse to identify as Africans, because of how long they have been separated and isolated on the island British colonizers left them on. Britain’s apparent infiltration into West Africa, and the transporting of Africans away from their homes has definitely caused an ongoing abyss of fragmented identity.
By using Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ as the compositional basis for ‘Rape of Africa’, David LaChapelle simultaneously resurrects and subverts the Florentine painting’s contextual themes. In a way, mainstream corruption is nothing less of classical portraiture; it can always be revived, modified, recoded and made more complex for a time such as today. Art and human corruption are timeless. Everything is cyclical; history tends to repeat itself with a unique twist each time. Botticelli’s favourite model, Simonetta Vespucci, was a noblewoman famous for her beauty; a Florentine idol. Not only was she admired by Botticelli himself and Giuliano de’ Medici, Simonetta Vespucci was a role model of beauty to other women of Italy. LaChapelle not only translates the classical artwork via his own interpretation, he attempts to imitate Botticelli’s methodology. So, it is no surprise LaChapelle chose Naomi Campbell, a model iconic for her mainstream standards of beauty today, to model the neo-Venus. The genius of LaChapelle’s visual translation of Botticelli’s classical ‘Venus and Mars’, is that both contemporary and historian audiences can quickly grasp ‘Rape of Africa’s fundamental theme at first glance; a dystopia. This theme comes to mind when evaluating the dramatic, film-like components that layer up ‘Rape of Africa’. Fluorescent lights, pink and blue, and mass-produced posters covering the walls, the light’s glare from its shiny surfaces, the thick noonday darkness and sandy compounds revealed from the massive hole caused by some explosion. These features give the impression of an abandoned drug store as use of an exhibition space, located in a deserted African country in the future, likely a country where corruption is at its peak, and the economy has collapsed.
In the television Series ‘Ways of Seeing’, based on John Berger’s book, Berger shares a profound remark of his: that ‘false mystery and religiosity’ is a substitute for true admiration of art. The awe in exploring authentic art has been ‘lost’ because ‘the camera has made it reproducible’. The mass-produced posters that decorate box walls have an interesting role in ‘Rape of Africa’. Through the evolution of technology, art has passed through many filters, one being the lens of a camera as Berger mentioned. Each industrial reprint of an authentic piece of art somewhat deflates the value of the original masterpiece. Since mass production is so closely linked to western consumerism, the posters act as an emblem to remind us of the greed and vanity of man. Each ‘Sun bleach’ poster is the equivalent of a mine worker, a villager whose home is substituted for a digging land; undervalued. Advanced weaponry abused by children implies the misuse of military forces by African governments whom know no better way towards socio-economic stability besides violence and fear. Instead of investing in weapons for military security, Many African governments should look at trading their precious resources, using the profit for socio-economic and infrastructure developments. Through the conspicuous advancement of military forces, something very dear to Africa is being lost, something more valuable than gold, diamonds and precious resources; its integrity.
Despite conveying these solid dystopian ideas, LaChapelle’s painting stays faithful to the archaic devices used in renaissance paintings, enforcing his point that history still has a stronghold on how we perceive the western world, Africa today, and how we may perceive these regions in the future. Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ has the particular properties of paintings that would be found in a patrician’s chamber; these belonged to a group of paintings named ‘Spalliere’ paintings. Chambers were rooms that patricians would show off to visitors. Spalliere paintings were rectangular; LaChapelle has imitated this proportion to emulate Botticelli’s painting. Early Florentine Spalliere paintings were often religious or revolving around marriage, like the mythical marriage of Venus and Mars . They were also quite large in size. These paintings were often placed high up in a room of a Florentine stately house, usually above a bed, chest or vertical piece of furniture. In the Robilant and Voena exhibition, LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’ is hung in a similar way, but not as high as a chamber painting would usually be hung, neither was it hung over a piece of furniture, like Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ at the National Gallery. Maybe this is curated to diminish the chasm of class between the patrician and the mainstream audience or remove the sense of intimidating ownership of the patrician; all are welcomed in the public space. The curation of his art reflects the time we are in today, the times of ‘high’ art becoming more accessible. The general public did not have access to private chamber rooms or were able to see privately commissioned paintings owned by patricians. However, LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’ is far from the intention of being private and is less so due to the camera’s reproducibility.
As LaChapelle’s painting is viewed through many filters of technology, like build boards, television, posters, videos and social media pictures, so is the continent of Africa fed to us through a variety of bias western filters. As Bart-Williams indicates, these filters include charity organizations like Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross and Life Aid, whom sustain the image of Africa through the filter of poverty, decay and in need of charity. On the other hand, commercial travel organizations like Air b&b, Rhino Africa and international European hotels sustain a pseudo-utopian Africa, burying all negative images, with the clear intention of generating travel revenue. Whatever filter Africa can be viewed from, whether poverty or abundance, is exclusively done for the convenience of a European organization making money. Universally, LaChapelle combines these filters. They all have their roles in ‘Rape of Africa’. To an extent there is power in exposure; LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’ brings about awareness to masses via these technological exposure mediums. Nevertheless, the excessive exposure of the artwork can diminish its worth to the value of a meme. Over-exposure is a clear attribute of ‘rape’, and exposure can often be abused through people’s perspectives e.g. charities and travel businesses. Most importantly, it would be unnecessary to see the real work in a gallery because of re-presented illusions. For a long time, this is how I have felt about Africa. I am fed information of what Africa is like through western filters, which determine my conclusion about the continent, although I have never even been to Africa. What made the chamber room so valuable is that the patrician had control over what the viewer saw and over the exposure time. Face to face, viewers saw spalliere paintings in all its authenticity, without bias filters; reproducibility was impossible without the camera. However, the idea of privately commissioned paintings owned by the patrician, especially if they were nude woman, was to intimidate his spectators, making them jealous of the female’s loyal gaze to the patrician. I can imagine that these female nude paintings impressed the aura of bigamy and covert narcissism in the chamber, potential id characteristics of the patrician. Classical reclining nude portraits of women often portrayed the woman looking away from the accompanying male nude, or directly at the spectator, just as Venus looks not at Mars. Therefore, there must be a level of infidelity towards her lover, Mars.
Another archaic idea that LaChapelle has remained loyal to is the marriage of Venus and Mars, as to say Mars, the chivalric god of war has won his trophy goddess. In Botticelli’s painting, Venus lays in a rather platonic posture, is unaroused, and stares disinterested at her sleeping husband, Mars, propelling the further ideas conveyed; chastity and fidelity. LaChapelle experiments with these ideas, daring us to question the fidelity and submission of African Venus towards Mars. In ‘Rape of Africa’, the elegantly reclining Mars appears to be a polygamous king rather than a spouse in marriage to Venus. Likewise, Venus, exposing much of her visceral areas, appears to be more of a concubine than a wife. Since a concubine typically was a woman who voluntarily became a sex slave to a married man for her personal survival, a correlation can be made regarding the relationship between Britain and its once colonised African countries. Venus’ ripped gown has strong biblical connotations; many old-testament stories tell of men and woman who tore their robes in response to a grievous event. Tamar, the daughter of David, wore a specially customised robe made for royal virgin daughters after being raped by her half-brother, Amnon. In an act of protest, not only did she wear a robe which symbolised virginity, she tore the robe to proclaim that her very body had been defiled like the beautiful gown she wore, and she was in mourning. As a result of being raped, she lived as an unmarried, desolate woman for the rest of her life. Venus’ ripped gown symbolises that she has been raped, the beauty of her virginity irreparably crushed. From an early male lens, the revealing of Venus’ body derogates her marital status because of what other men can see. Frances Borzello introduces ‘Reclining Nude’ by addressing how the Greeks of Botticelli’s time had no regard for the ‘nude female body’. They saw woman as ‘ill-proportioned creatures’ that could never fit the pattern of ‘male perfection’.
Extrapolating issues of European colonialism, neo-colonialism and rape from artists David LaChapelle and Sandro Botticelli
David LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’, inspired by the Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli, is a brilliantly constructed re-appropriation of Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ painting. (Fig. 2). I am particularly inspired by the infinite contextual layers in LaChapelle’s work, but specifically the portrayal of the colonial themes: rape and European imperialism. I will briefly share how colonisation has impacted the identity of my parents. The title of LaChapelle’s artwork extrapolates the subjects of African Feminism and activism, which I will expand upon referring to authors whom go into depth about the subjects, like Chimamanda Ngozi and Edward Said. LaChapelle’s painting is audacious for a 2008 painting, considering the western world’s heightened racial tension in 2008 (Andrews, 2015). Not only does it criticise Florentine renaissance art, it also criticises the colonization of Africa from European countries, intertwining historical and post-modern colonial theories into one painting. By criticizing colonial history through ‘Rape of Africa’, LaChapelle is forcing our western society to question the blurred lines, the kind of corruption camouflaged into our worldly systems. LaChapelle emphasizes that we are still dealing with the same issues that ancient people dealt with. To simplify colonialism, we are faced with the cyclical issue of ‘Venus versus Mars’; greed verses love, as LaChapelle states .
As an Afro-Caribbean British woman and feminist, the subject of British colonization is pertinent to me. My mother, from Jamaica, and my father, from Sierra-Leone both were born in the British post-colonies. Delving into the significant history of these post-colonies will help better understand the gravity of ‘Rape of Africa’ to me. The reason I find this subject so relevant to discuss as of today is because it is very difficult to conclude that we are free from the psychological bondage, the long-term irreparable that colonialism has caused. As much as I am not sentimental, and it doesn’t matter where my ancestors came from, there is slow economic development and large-scale poverty in Jamaica and Sierra-Leone right now, two places recovering from colonial damage. Dr Nicholas Draper collated archival information regarding all the compensated families of Britain, their wealth being substantialised by African slavery within Britain’s colonies. Compensation was paid to slave owners in Jamaica and wealthy Victorian families in Britain, whose descendants enjoy the slave-made wealth up to this day. Just studying the amount of compensation money given by the British government to slave owners grieves me, because this is the exact kind of wealth that could begin major economic developments in Jamaica and Sierra Leone as a means of compensation for their colonised ancestors. Another issue that daunts me today is that the very families in these post-colonies whose enslaved ancestors helped acquire Britain’s great wealth do not even get to feel the gravity of this fortune. The crimson red veil that Venus (Naomi Campbell) sits upon in LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’, represents the ‘blood money’ acquired by wealthy British families; it will be buried for as long as the descendants of colonial slaves live.
Mars, slouched in a reclining posture right above his greedy golden plunder, represents the serenity and almost orgasmic joy of the slave-owners, as they indulge in the wealth produced by slaves. After debating with some family members and close friends, I can conclude that there is still a deep anger that stems from coming to terms with our history. I don’t believe that kind of anger just dies, neither do I believe that the solution is simple. Like energy, anger is transferrable. Past activists like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were angry. Truth, being born into slavery in 1797 as ‘Isabella’, transferred her anger by becoming an abolitionist and activist for women’s rights. Harriet Tubman built an underground railroad to help free slaves from America brought via the transatlantic slave trade. As Chimamanda Adichie puts it in her speech ‘We Should All be Feminists’, anger has a ‘long history of bringing about positive change’. Tara Teng, a Christian feminist like me, not only shares her views on how Jesus was the perfect role model and advocate for women, but after defaming human trafficking as ‘the fastest growing crime’, she asserts ‘this is why we still need feminism’, even though she wishes we didn’t. In the process, Truth and Tubman’s anger concerning the mass enslavement of Africans worldwide didn’t just die. Enslavement is only one aspect of the concept ‘Rape of Africa’, as depicted in LaChapelle’s painting. Colonial history as it is taught, has a bearing on our judgement of certain people, which is why it is so important to correctly extrapolate. In other words, Neo-colonialism is in effect.
Briefly, I will discuss the ‘Rape of Africa’s relevance to Britain’s involvement with Sierra Leone and Jamaica, the birth countries of my parents. Bunce Island in Sierra Leone was the centre of transatlantic slave trade; Forts had been founded there by the Royal African Company for the very purpose. The properties of the country, such as the costal location and distance made it an ideal place for the slave trade business. When I was young, my father always tried to teach me and my siblings Krio, which derived from the mixing of freed slaves across different African countries. Without the British infiltration, the language, simply comprised of broken English, would not have existed. David Olusoga makes and interesting remark about the country; the Krio population of Sierra Leone are a ‘people whose identities have been profoundly shaped by British slavery’, and British abolitionism. In Mallence Bart-Williams’ TEDx talk about the natural wealth of Sierra Leone, Bart-Williams stresses the abundance of natural resources beneath the grounds of Sierra Leone, used and abused by western Europe today. She displays images of the diamonds on Queen Victoria’s crown, and lists exotic minerals and petroleum reserves found in Sierra Leone. Platinum, Ilmenite, rutile (which coats jets), tantalite (coltan) used in mobile phones and computers, zinc, nickel, chrome ore can all be found under the rich grounds of Sierra Leone as Mallence describes. At the OstLicht gallery in Vienna, LaChapelle briefly unravels the contextual background that inspired the ‘Rape of Africa’.
Inspired by an article about ‘gold’, published by National Geographic, LaChapelle shares his concerns about gold being bought as a financial security. He shares his evaluation about the market crash in 2006. In 2007, people invested in gold ten times more than in 2006 because gold was a much more solid commodity than Real money. Gold is a leitmotif in LaChapelle’s ‘Rape of Africa’, as portrayed in Venus’ jewellery, her ornamented gown, the plunder of gold underneath sleeping Mars, and the mining ground as an eccentric backdrop. Mallence Bart-Williams asks her European audience an integral question, a question that I sometimes ponder on, ‘Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth one unit of your currency, when we are the ones with the actual gold reserves?’ she says out of irritation . The very richness of Sierra-Leone’s resources is not distributed to the labourers who extract these resources or their families, neither was it distributed to their ancestors. At the expense of desperate lives in Sierra Leone, gold and diamonds are mined for the imperial decor and strengthening of the British currency, and other European countries. LaChapelle and Bart-Williams’ views on the dependence of Europe to Africa closely correspond. Consciously addressing the continent as ‘Mother Africa’, LaChapelle believes that by digging out the natural resources of Africa in the pursuit of materialism and financial security, we are securing our own demise for the future. Bart-Williams finalizes her point, ‘Of course, the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately’ .