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Pieter Hugo

Freak on a Leash

by Andy Davis / 26.05.2011

In Ralph Ziman’s over-reaching flick, Jerusalema, there’s a scene where protagonist Lucky Kunene asks this white chick whose brother he’s just rescued from a Nigerian drug lord:
“What’s with you white people? You have nice houses, smart cars, fancy clothes and you still come here. Why?”
The white chick sighs and says: “I guess when you’re rich, poverty seems… glamorous… it’s got a certain charm.”
It’s a good place to start when trying to decode what’s happening with Beyoncé’s blatant riff on the images of Pieter Hugo, pantsula dance moves and unhealthy doses of what her creative team of pop pilferers must describe as “that fresh African shee-it” to propel her latest release “Run the World (Girls)”, the first single on her alleged “greatly anticipiated” 4th album.

As Pliny the elder of Rome remarked in 63AD, “There is always something new out of Africa”. Pieter Hugo knows this. He’s built a radically successful career finding and taking arresting images from the continent. This creative process, in turn, gets fed through the sausage machine of contemporary culture, multiplied by the internet and devoured by a slew of deskbound commercial scavengers, I mean “creatives”, only to end up as a “reference”, stripped of context and meaning, in a Beyoncé video. In any other medium, like writing or art, if it’s not credited, it’s deemed as theft. How poignant then that the images in question are of hyenas.

Pieter Hugo
Pieter Hugo, Mallam Galadima Ahmadu with Jamis, Abuja, Nigeria 2005, archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, edition of 5 + 1 AP

Alex Needham, writing for the Guardian, concisely cuts to the crux of the matter. “There’s nothing new about borrowing, but it’s unusual for disturbing imagery to be plundered for glossy commercial purposes.”
The starry-eyed report on Channel 24 was more generous, calling it a “reference” not a riff and getting a Pieter Hugo quote: “Imitation is a large compliment. I feel flattered.” He said. “I think the men would’ve felt flattered as well, but will wonder why they’ve not been paid.”

But then some might argue that Hugo is also plundering his images. Seeking out fetishized African scenarios for galleries abroad. That whole “white eye on Africa” argument. Which takes us back to the leaden quote from Jerusalema. “I guess when you’re rich poverty seems glamourous”. But the quote itself is problematic. Because that’s not “glamour” baby. That’s reality. It’s the thing that’s missing from the lives of modern privilege. This artistic infatuation with poverty is a search for realness, meaning, depth, character. Poor people tend not to suffer from existential angst. They suffer merely from existence.
And it’s always good to remember, that before Pieter Hugo made that trip to Nigeria in 2005, and sought out the “Gadawan Kura”, these images did not exist.

But let’s get back to the Beyoncé video. Maybe I’m just getting whiter with age, but the song is pretty much unlistenable too. Despite Major Lazer repurposing his killer “Pon de Floor” beat, the Beyoncé track fails in almost every aspect. It’s a pastiche of clichés attempting some kind of indecipherable “girl power” message mish mashed in a post apocalyptic scenario somewhere near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Huh? Worse yet, The Daily Mail, not having the relevant cultural knowledge or experience, compared the pantsula dance moves to Riverdance… oh the cruel inhumanity of ignorance. Pantsulas everywhere should declare a Fatwa! Then there are the head nods to the Libyan civil war, the North African Arabic revolutions, the timeous imagery of the babes in military gear, an allusion to Muammar Gadaffi’s “Amazonian Guard”, the handpicked bodyguards of the Libyan despot who must undergo extensive firearms and martial arts training at a special academy and then take an oath of chastity in order to protect “The Colonel”. Girl Power! Ja right.

I guess the real problem lies in the ambiguity of the message. What’s Beyoncé saying here? Is there a meaningful revolutionary subtext? Nope. It’s pop kak dressed up African with a vague sexy feminist twist. It’s shallow, commercially driven shit made to look exotic in contemporary African finery. Window dressing for USA style “black power” cred. Check my references, bitches, I’m down with my roots in Afrika!

But let’s not get too sanctimonious, lest we forget, this is pop music. A place where Justin Bieber wins all the awards. A zombie graveyard of borrowed ideas, gutted of meaning and re-purposed to sell. Reheated in the Google microwave and slopped out like gruel for an audience that won’t know better. It’s like Afripop Mag‘s Phiona Okumu said on Facebook, “I would give her props for stealing if she was the actual stealer. But we can be certain that none of it was Beyoncé’s actual idea. And ultimately it’s a bollocks video.”

Pieter Hugo
Pieter Hugo, Nura Garuba and friend with their monkey, Abuja, Nigeria 2005, image size: 100 x 100cm
archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, edition of 5 + 1 AP

*Opening image credit Pieter Hugo, Amiloo and Clear, Abuja, Nigeria 2005, image size: 100 x 100cm
archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, edition of 5 + 1 AP

**All images courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

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