Michelle Obama slave depiction shock
A blasé attitude seems to encapsulate pockets of Spanish society's view of racism, where this particular form of prejudice, is not self-censored or distinguished from acceptable conduct. This has been exhibited on numerous occasions, frequently in sports, where the Spanish have been responsible for a number of racial slurs and other faux pas.
So when the Spanish Magazine de Fuera de Serie printed an image of Michelle Obama as a semi-nude slave, it was not necessarily a shock, rather another disappointment.
The picture by Karine Percheron-Daniels shows the face of the First Lady of the United States superimposed on the famous Portrait d’une négresse painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, housed by the Louvre Museum in Paris. The original painting was finished six years after France abolished slavery and commentaries on the image emphasize themes of race, gender, emancipation and empowerment.
It was a female painter that tackled these taboos which further politicizes the significance of the image. However here we have one of the most influential people in the world, being reduced to slave status and portrayed half naked. The level of degradation is shocking.
Percheron-Daniels made this image as part of her photo-shopping series, where she takes iconic people and nude paintings and combines the two. Her collection exhibits a variety of famous people’s heads on nude paintings. However, unlike the other nudes, Michelle Obama’s is the most compromising because of its racial and gender implications.
The front cover reads “Michelle se come a Obama” (Michelle beating Barack) referencing her popularity. The offence is assisted by the article title “Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Dueña De América” (Michelle granddaughter of a slave, Lady of America).
The message of the original painting is completely lost on this sensationalized, superficial remake.
By sexualizing Michelle Obama, the artist has reiterated a historical trend prevalent throughout European history about the portrayal of females with African heritage. They are typically depicted as ‘exotic’ and need to be gawped at, see Sarah Baartman. This is done with no reference to their intelligence, of which Obama as a Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate, has plenty.
Percheron-Daniels defended herself by stating:
The first Lady of America in the first time in history is a black woman who proudly and confidently displays her WOMANHOOD (the nude) her ROOTS (the slave) and her POWER (the First Lady of America embraced by the American flag). This picture, is a celebration of EVERYTHING GOOD, it is a celebration of achievement and in my opinion is not a racist slur
This is not the image people have of Michelle Obama as some successful descendant of a slave. She is typically viewed as a strong, intelligent, classy, elegant lady, so there is no need to make any convoluted attempts to give recognition to the denial of her individuality and agency. In an attempt to pay homage to the First Lady, the artist ended up disrespecting her, and the editor was clearly complicit.
Arthur Legal-Miller wrote in Clutch that:
Let’s be clear: This image has nothing to do with acknowledging Obama’s enslaved foremothers, and everything to do with reinforcing and extending the historical denial of black women’s individuality and agency. The portrait robs Obama of her identity, voice, and intellect, and visually shackles her to a politically passive subject, resigned to an assigned role as slave. I do not support the censorship of art. However, the mass reproduction of this nude portrait on the cover of a national newspaper supplement is a legitimate concern.
This is not the first time the Spanish media has been caught in a race row. An ad for a multinational insurance firm Groupama, was withdrawn from Spanish TV following a complaint from Operation Black Vote. The ad featured Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina who’s surname means ‘queen’ meeting the ‘king’ of an African tribe, who suggests a sexual relationship with Rein as his Queen. The dialect of the Noble Savage is Spanish mixed with generic African phonetic babble in which the king says the Spanish equivalents of f**k f**k (chinga chinga). This is a deeply insulting portrayal of African people and our languages.
Beyond the media, the Spanish basketball team thought that it was appropriate to pose while making slit-eye gestures to the camera when they were at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Spanish fans blacked up to imitate Hamilton's skin colour at the Spanish Grand Prix in 2008. Others mocked him and shouted racial insults as he walked between the paddock and the track. The Spanish Football Federation was fined at Euro 2012 because of racist chanting from its fans, and the former national team coach Louis Aragones called Thierry Henry “Negro de mierda” (Black sh*t).
The magazine cover should be seen for what it is - more of a publicity stunt to sell the publication than any attempt at discussing the socio-historical context of placing the first African-American first lady’s head on the body of a nameless 19th century slave.