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.