Rape of Africa: part II

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’.  

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