The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. In today’s post Chelsea Phillips writes about Beyonce’s recent pregnancy photo shoot.
On 1 February 2017, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter announced that she was pregnant with twins on Instagram, sparking a social media frenzy. The initial image, laden with symbolism, was quickly revealed to be part of a larger, fully-produced pregnancy photo shoot by the artist Awol Erizku. In early April, I sat down with a group of friends and colleagues to discuss the shoot. The conversation ranged from its historical and contemporary artistic influences, to Beyoncé’s performance of pregnancy, identity, race, and culture; what follows is a partial transcript of that conversation.
Chelsea Phillips: Can you all introduce yourselves?
James Ijames: Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova, performer, playwright; I write about race, gender, class.
Tim McCall: Associate Professor of Art History, I work on Renaissance Art, material culture, fashion, masculinity. Co-director of Gender and Women’s Studies.
Ashley Leamon: Program Coordinator and adjunct faculty for Villanova Theatre, lifetime Beyoncé fan, lifetime dedication to all that is Beyoncé, lifetime dedication to pop culture; unofficial Pop Culture PhD. I’m giving it to myself.
Chelsea: Assistant Professor of Theatre; I study pregnancy, eighteenth century theatre, and celebrity.
We’re here to discuss Beyoncé’s pregnancy photoshoot as a group of specialists in performance, celebrity, Beyoncé, pop culture, race and gender, art and art history—so let’s get to it!
We have to start with the most-liked Instagram photo of all time, the one used to make the announcement.
Ashley: This photo was published to Instagram on February 1, 2017, which was incidentally the first day of Black History Month. It was after the election, which I think we all needed
Within hours, it became the most-liked Instagram picture of all time; it is currently at 10,893,777 (as of 11:32am on April 5, 2017).
Vanity Fair gestational guru Kelly Butler, who correctly guessed how far along Princess Kate was, estimated that Beyoncé was at about sixteen weeks here, which means she’ll give birth at the end of the summer.
Chelsea: Tim, as someone who is steeped in art and art history, what inspirations do you see?
Tim: It makes me think of a contemporary artist, Catherine Opie. She’s a queer artist, famous in the early 90s—and uses these bright backgrounds, and a hyper-realistic, in-your-face style. She wouldn’t have all the flowers, but she’s interested in motherhood too; one of her pieces is her nursing her child.
The flowers make you think of garlands around the Virgin Mary, but also Flemish still lifes, like Brueghel; and the Virgin of Guadalupe, with that full-body garland.
Ashley: I read an article that said the flowers in the first picture were reminiscent of a funeral wreath, and could be a nod to the miscarriage [in 2011].
Tim: The veil is so sheer—it’s there but not there, so it raises this theme of concealing and revealing.
And when we get to the Birth of Venus image, it struck me again.
She has the long hair and the pose is supposed to look like the Birth of Venus—though the flowers on her legs are from another Botticelli, Primavera. There’s an important difference, though.
Her pose is a pose from ancient sculpture, the pudica pose. It comes from the Knidian Aphrodite. This is the time when you start to see sculpture that’s meant to be in the round, not just seen from one angle. The Knidian Aphrodite was famous because people couldn’t stop attacking it—they kept trying to have sex with it.
What was so sexy is that she was trying to cover herself—because if you’re covering yourself you know you’re being looked at. The sculpture anticipates the viewer looking at her.
The thing is, the subjects never do a good job of covering themselves, because the sculptor wants you to see everything. But here, everything is covered, and so she’s using her hand to hold her belly and call attention to that.
James: The things that’s so interesting to me about these photos, and Beyonce aesthetically in general, is that pendulum swing between something that’s very high and impeccable and something that’s just the ghettoest thing you can find—and I mean that being someone who enjoys the trappiest of trap music and the…lowest of culture. I hate using that term low because that devalues it.
The Nefertiti thing to me is that all of my aunts have a Nefertiti bust in their house somewhere, in the bathroom, the powder room, my grandmother has one; I see that in that particular set of “I’m gonna make her brown and do something different with the hat.” It’s harkening, I think, to a Southern roots thing– all of these waxy flowers—and those are panty. hose. she’s wearing. And there’s something in that that’s really Southern; and how Southern people play with what is ‘high’ art and what is ‘low’ art and how those things meet. There’s something undeniably Southern, and Southern black about that that she’s trying to celebrate.
She is all about the symbols.
Chelsea: Absolutely intentional about everything she does.
Speaking of—how does this compare to the reveal of her first pregnancy?
James: With Blue she was performing at the VMAs. In a tuxedo.
Ashley: Love on Top, in four-inch heels.
James: She undid her cummerbund and stuck her belly out.
Ashley: But we never saw her body after that, except for a brief moment in the HBO special that came out years after. And the big theory was that she wasn’t actually pregnant, that she had someone carry Blue for her.
Chelsea: Concealing and revealing, coming back.
The suspicion around pregnant bodies has been around for a long time– in the Renaissance, when you had no way of looking into those bodies…until a baby came out, that body could mean anything, contain anything.
Ashley: Like what?
Chelsea: Well, like Mary Tudor’s phantom pregnancies, or Mary of Modena in 1688, who gives birth to a son after years of marriage; people thought she faked the pregnancy and smuggled a baby in in a warming pan and pretended to deliver it. It’s fascinating that something similar happened to Beyoncé.
Ashley: She was on lockdown with that first pregnancy, and now she’s so far in the opposite direction. It is interesting that there’s been such a change.
To be continued…
Chelsea Phillips is Assistant Professor of Theatre; I study pregnancy, eighteenth century theatre, and celebrity and Associate Director of the Perceptions of Pregnancy Research Network.