The song’s six-minute video, directed by Ricky Saiz, features the iconic couple and a group of dancers with unrestricted access to the halls of the Louvre in Paris. The Carters position themselves among the museum’s Western masterpieces to tell the story of their union, to celebrate their ascension through the musical charts and into the public consciousness, and to exalt black women’s bodies and black love in a space that is itself steeped in colonialism and systemic oppression.
But in “APES--T,” they move through the Louvre as if it belongs to them. They not only insert themselves into the Western canon, where blackness has intentionally been cast aside, but create their own imagery by building upon iconic works and redirecting the conversation.
Here are the underlying messages behind the Carter’s choice of four artworks featured in “APES--T”:
One of the earliest and most arresting images features the Carters standing before the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” a striking representation of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. With its folds of billowing drapery, it is full of movement and deeply theatrical qualities, which Beyoncé mirrors in her own highly-sculptural dress.
The positioning of the work within the Louvre is significant: “Winged Victory” stands at the intersection of three staircases and is a major focal point. The Carters occupy this space as if they’ve been there all along, as comfortably at home as the works of art themselves. They are living sculptures, admired and revered.
Along the staircase leading up to the Carters are female dancers of varied skin tones, laying on their backs. Each is dressed in flesh-colored, form-fitting outfits, and they raise their bodies in unison to the Carters, uplifted by their success.
It’s also critical to note that traditionally in museums and galleries, art is displayed on white walls or in white spaces to allow the art to be viewed without distraction. In this frame of the video, skin color is one of the main subject matters. For black women to not only occupy, but move fluidly, comfortably and naturally (to dance!) throughout this white-centric and male artist-dominated venue is a major power move.
It’s evident that this sculpture was also selected for its larger historical meaning, as it’s believed to be in commemoration of a Rhodian naval victory. Beyoncé is an icon of victory herself. She is a master of her career, her artistry, and, after overcoming intense speculation and strife, her personal life.
Over and again, white European ideals of beauty have attempted to stamp out the idea that black can be beautiful, so “Portrait of Juliette Récamier” stands out as a particularly meaningful choice in the video. Juliette Récamier hosted one of the most popular salons in Paris, was an intellectual, and was deeply admired by men and women alike. Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of the young woman was considered to be an ideal representation of the epitome of feminine elegance, and so the positioning of two women of color directly in front of her challenges the notion that black women cannot also occupy this space.
On Instagram, Beyoncé posted an image of one of the dancers in repose before the portrait. Both her expression and posture are confident, perhaps even challenging, a considerable contrast to Récamier’s more reserved expression. She also is dressed to accentuate the color of her skin and her body, the white headwrap adding drama while Récamier is dressed in all white with a bare head.
The painting of Napoleon’s coronation is epic in both scale and story: At the coronation, Napoleon is said to have taken the crown from Pope Pius VII. He then placed it on his own head, rejecting the pope’s authority. But Napoleon wasn’t done: He took it a step further by crowning his wife Joséphine empress.
The immediate allusion one could draw is that, like Napoleon, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, a powerful black couple, created their own rules to build their empire. In the video, Beyoncé dances in front of where Josephine is kneeling in the painting. Jay-Z is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she chooses to assert her independence as a successful artist and businesswoman by surrounding herself with other black women. They move in unison, hands clasped. Through the bonds of black sisterhood, they rise and thrive as she does.
At the end of the video we’re shown, for the first time, a portrait that features a black woman as the subject, as well as the first work created by a female artist: Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress).” The woman depicted in the painting was likely enslaved before coming to France, where she became a servant, James Smalls, an art historian, noted in an essay published in 2004.
The woman probably had little to no autonomy “in the way her body was presented,” Smalls notes. The portrait’s title also strips the subject of her identity beyond her race. But the fact that it’s a portrait allows the woman the dignity she was due.
In “APES--T,” the portrait is presented in isolation and occupies the entire frame of the camera. No allusions or comparisons need to be drawn: This black woman is regal all on her own. Her portrait hangs in one of the world’s most respected spaces. She has, in a small way, achieved a position of status few of her peers have occupied.
The same can be said for the Carters, who are elevated, self-made subjects in command of their own presentation and how we understand them. Their economic and social caché are matched by few (they never let us forget that they rented out the Louvre), but the inclusion of a diverse array of black, self-possessed and agile bodies throughout the video sends the message that they are taking all black people with them as they climb.
“I can’t believe we made it,” Beyoncé repeats in the hook. “This is what we’re thankful for.” But the imagery she and her team have created says, “We are rightfully here, and we’re here to stay.”