When Beyoncé announced that she’s pregnant with twins — via an Instagram post she then followed up with a sumptuous visual essay on her website — she was taking control of her narrative in the way that only Beyoncé can: She made the announcement on her own terms, through her own channels, instead of going through the intermediary of a magazine or news outlet.
And, in collaboration with a number of photographers, including Awol Erizku, she filled the announcement with references and allusions that position her firmly at the center of a long visual tradition of mothers and of womanhood. Let’s take a look at some of what Beyoncé and her photographers are referencing and how they’re doing it.
The Madonna and Child
In the Western canon, when you put a woman with a baby on canvas, you’re usually painting a Madonna and Christ child.
The iconography here is pretty codified. The Virgin Mary is usually draped in a blue veil and gazing modestly, adoringly down; the baby Jesus stares solemnly out at the viewer. It’s rare, but not impossible, to see any image of the Virgin Mary with her belly swollen by pregnancy: It’s a fleshy image, and the Virgin Mary is supposed to be beyond flesh.
But there’s Beyoncé, gazing down, pregnant, draped in a Madonna-like veil, her ruffled panties Virgin Mary-blue.
She’s using all of the props and codes of the traditional Madonna and child imagery here, but there’s no escaping the physical fact of her pregnant body. Beyoncé has taken on the power and the purity of the Virgin Mary’s iconography, but she insists on the power of her body, as well.
On Beyoncé’s website, all of the photographs are named variations on “B-VENUS,” a not-so-subtle hint that Queen Bey’s about to reference some Venus imagery. And the most iconic painting of Venus, the one you’ve probably seen before, is Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” painted in the late 15th century.
Botticelli shows Venus, the Roman goddess of erotic love, emerging from the sea foam where she was born, while winds blow roses into her hair and a handmaiden waits to drape her in silk. She’s an ideal of bodily, sexual, feminine beauty, and an immensely powerful one at that: “Her nakedness is genuinely divine,” writes Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. “She preserves a portion of modesty not because this is a prudish painting, but because the totally revealed nudity of a god might blind or madden the beholder. There is an almost tangible sense of divine power when you look at this image.”
And the lead image of Beyoncé’s photo essay, which shows her half-naked, surrounded by flowers, draped in silky fabric, is — to use the technical term — Botticelli as fuck.
There are those flowers again, which represent fecundity and female genitalia, like the flowers wafting on the wind towards Venus. They form an arc over Beyoncé’s head that echoes the subtle arc over Venus’s head, formed by her mantle and the leaves on the right and the edges of the clouds on the left. Beyoncé’s hair is falling in the long flowing curls that Botticelli loved to paint, and the veil cascading past her hips echoes the lines of Venus’s hair. Her hands are placed deliberately against her half-naked body in a way that both frames her pregnant belly and echoes Venus’s hands covering her genitalia — not, as Johnson wrote, out of prudishness, but in an acknowledgment of divine power.
Later in the essay, we see Beyoncé submerged in sparkling, foamy water, another nod to Venus, who was born from sea foam.
But it also nods to the next figure in Beyoncé’s list of influences: Mami Wata.
Mami Wata is a water spirit celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African diaspora. She is connected to water, says Nicholas Mirzoeff, an NYU professor of media, culture, and communication, “but also to money: Some would say to capitalism. She's also interested in her own beauty to the point of being vain.”
Like Venus, Mami Wata is an image of divine feminine beauty born out of the water, but she’s not just in charge of love: She can bring her followers money and take it away again. She represents, says Smithsonian magazine, the interaction between Africa and the rest of the world: the currency and immense fortune — or loss of fortune — that can come from marine trade, the pidgin English name (Mami Wata, Mother Water) that comes from the language that arose to facilitate that trade.
Beyoncé, throwing herself playfully in and out of the water, dressed in the same shade of yellow that Mami Wata wears in her most iconic representations, is taking on Mami Wata’s power: not just the classical Western feminine ideal of erotic beauty, but the power of money and capital.
Keep your money, she got her own.
For photographer Awol Erizku, this kind of playful blended iconography is par for the course
The eye behind the lead images of the photo essay, Erizku is the art world equivalent of a rock star: BA from the enormously prestigious Cooper Union School of Art, MFA from Yale’s Visual Arts, on display at MoMa by age 26. (Beyoncé worked with a number of photographers on the essay, including Daniela Vesco, one of her go-to collaborators, but Erizku did the photo Beyoncé used for her Instagram post, the one that became instantly iconic.)
Erizku first took the art world by storm with his 2012 exhibition “Black and Gold,” which featured portraits of people of color in iconic poses from the Western canon: “Girl with the Bamboo Earring” echoes “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” and “Teen Venus” echoes (again) Botticelli’s “Venus.”
But Erizku doesn’t think of his art as just the Western canon, updated for black people. “Other people’s understanding of my work is only seen through this one window. They refer to this image as the black Venus,” he told an interviewer about “Teen Venus.” “People can only see the new work in relation to the old work, and that is troublesome for me, because this is about universal blackness.” The idea is not “this is only for black people,” but instead, he says, that his subjects’ blackness “shouldn’t have to be pointed out.”
Since “Black and Gold,” Erizku has largely moved away from remixing classical portraiture and toward a more pop-influenced aesthetic. In his most recent exhibitions, he’s mixed his visuals with music. Each show gets a matching “conceptual mixtape” that functions as a soundtrack for the exhibition: “For me,” he says, “the mixtape is like a hypothesis and the show is the proof.” He’s interested in the way pop stars function as ideals of beauty for his generation, and evolving ideals of beauty are one of the forces that drive his art.
The music also functions, he says, as a way of making his exhibitions “more accessible to the people who I actually want to talk to — like the people who live in Little Haiti, the South Bronx, or Compton.” He describes a black Uber driver who dropped him off at a gallery and ended up following him into the exhibition. “She was like, ‘I definitely fuck with the black hands.’ If you fuck with the music you already feel like you are accepted in this space.”
Beyoncé just turned a birth announcement into art
“Beyoncé,” says Mirzoeff, “is among the most visually sophisticated people in popular culture today.”
She’s also among those with the most control over her image: She almost never grants interviews or does photo shoots for outside publications; she tends to communicate with her fans through her own social media platforms and websites. And with this announcement, she’s elevated the social-media birth announcement into art, art that’s specific to Beyoncé and all the signifiers bound up in that tightly controlled image she’s created: motherhood, sex, money, power, and black American womanhood.
It all works so well because Beyoncé is one of our great pop stars, one who can successfully embody all of the cultural iconography we used to demand from our gods: She is a figure onto whom we can project our ideas and anxieties about femininity and maternity and blackness, the way other cultures would project them onto Venus or Mami Wata.
“B is acutely aware of her iconicity,” says Darby English, Carl Darling Buck Professor of art history at the University of Chicago. And in this photo essay, “she acknowledges that she is more than herself; there’s room for others inside her truth. The fetal twins, for sure, but also fans et al.”
In releasing the birth announcement when she did — on the first day of the first post-Obama Black History Month — Beyoncé’s giving her fans a release, what English calls an opportunity for “optimistic future-think.” There is a possibility of hope after our current dark moment: There is life, there are the coming twins and the coming time. “For all of the self-regard,” says English, “it also feels generous.”