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’ .