Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’

Scenes and Looks Inspired by Classic African Art

August 09, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’, a film and visual guide to the 2019 soundtrack album ‘The Lion King: The Gift’, was released on 31 July to much fanfare. “With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy… I spent a lot of time exploring and absorbing the lessons of past generations and the rich history of different African customs,” Beyoncé wrote on Instagram ahead of the film’s premiere.

She described the film as a “celebratory memoir for the world on the Black experience,” one that celebrates “the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry.” Beyoncé’s passion for African art is clear, as influences from classic African art are peppered throughout the film.

To shine a light on the beauty of “Black ancestry”, we break down the art, aesthetic and cultural influences from various African ethnic groups in ‘Black is King’. From instantly-identifiable Dogon kanaga masquerades to full-raffia costumes reminiscent of those worn by Tabwa kiyunde dancers, below is a glimpse of the African art in ‘Black Is King’.

In ‘Find Your Way Back (Circle of Life)’, Beyoncé—wearing a black bodysuit designed by D.Bleu.Dazzled—is flanked by dancers in modern interpretations of kanaga celestial masks.

The Dogon believe that due to mankind breaking a religious restriction, people developed limited lifespans. The first Dogon ancestor to die transformed into a serpent before metamorphosing into his permanent spiritual form. This change into the spirit form brought negative influences on the community. As such, villagers carve wara masks in the belief that the masks will hold the spirit of the deceased ancestor. Wara masks are used during Sigi ceremonies, held once every sixty years, commemorating the transformational process of the first ancestor. Kanaga masks are danced during the funerals (Dama) of a deceased male community member that once took part in Sigi ceremonies. The Dama ceremony takes place after burial as a means to guide the deceased’s spirit out of the village and into the realm of spirits.

According to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which currently holds the kanaga mask featured in the above gallery, “the vertical shaft and crossbars of kanaga masks represent the connection between the celestial and earthly realms. In one of the most dramatic steps of all Dogon dances, the kanaga wearers leap and then, bending and rotating quickly at the waist, swoop the mask downward to touch the dusty ground. This action represents Amma, the creator, bringing life and fertility to Earth.”

"The great kings were here long before us. Ancient masters of celestial lore..." – Beyoncé

In ‘Already’ performed by Beyoncé and Shatta Wale, Beyoncé wears a jacket and belt—designed by Loza Maléombho—featuring five gold clasps similar in style to Akan gold face pendants. Maléombho says her label “has always stood for an image of African royalty.” Distinctive gold necklaces remain an important component of Akan royal ceremonial gear according to the Detroit Institue of Arts.

Baule goldsmiths make gold pendants (more accurately, ‘ornaments’) for patrons as part of sacred family treasures that are said to appease the spirits of ancestors (umien) in the hope that the ancestors will continue to help their descendants. Gold ornaments cast in a variety of designs, are hidden away by their owners in pots or suitcases (aja) and are said to represent family unity and identity. The material “soul’ of the family, aja are also considered family inheritances. The pendants are only brought out and worn during funerals and weddings.

Ornaments cast in the form of small faces are a favourite subject of Baule goldsmiths and their patrons according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art which holds the gold face pendant featured in the above gallery. The crescent-shaped ornament is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and ornaments of this type are typically attached to women’s headdresses during important occasions.

The photograph in the gallery was taken by Eliot Elisofon of a Kyaman goldsmith from Anna village in Ivory Coast. According to the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, “The photograph depicts an Ebrie (now Kyaman) man making pendants by lost wax method; cleaning wax with crushed leaf juice. ‘Pendant gold heads show great stylistic variation. Openwork forms and those pierced by triangular holes are characteristic of the lagoons region, while those of more naturalistic appearance were mostly made by the Baule and other inland goldsmiths.’ [Timothy F. Garrard, 1989: Gold of Africa, Prestel]. This photograph was taken when Eliot Elisofon was on assignment for National Geographic and travelled to Africa from 19 January 1972, to mid-April 1972.”

Depictions of African royal regalia feature heavily in ‘Black Is King’ including this scene in ‘Spirit’ starring a Baule ska kle crown from Ivory Coast. Quite unlike the solid gold ngblo pendants, the figurative and geometric ornaments attached to the velvet crown are made of wood and covered in gold foil. Ska kle crowns embellished like the example from the Dallas Museum of Art, and other gold regalia, are worn by Baule chiefs during important occasions.

The iconography on the attached ornaments all relate to known proverbs. According to Steve Kquofi, Peace Amate, and Emmanuel Tabi-Agyei, depictions of elephants (often at the top of the crown) can relate to one of the following Twi (an Akan sub-ethnic group) proverbs about leadership:

Sono bεtutu nnua nyinaa a.
Even if the elephant can uproot all trees, it cannot uproot the palm tree.
Meaning: It is almost impossible for the wind or elephant to pull down the mature oil palm tree. The palm tree is used as a symbol for great warriors or a nation that is advancing towards a war target. The proverb is used to warn such an assailant that, they may have defeated previous enemies, but they cannot defeat this one because no one ever has. The proverb is also used to warn goal-blinded persons to look before they leap.

Obi nnni sono akyi mmoro hasuo.
No one follows the elephant (in the bush) and gets wet by the morning dew.
Meaning: The elephant symbolises a powerful or prominent person in society who gets you out of trouble if you associate with him.

The photograph in the gallery, taken by Eliot Elisofon in 1972, is of Baule dignitary N’Goran Koffi with his linguist and elders.

"We have always been wonderful. I see us reflected in the world’s most heavenly things. Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was." – Beyoncé

Channelling African royal regalia once again, Beyoncé dons a fibre hat in ‘Mood 4 Eva’, similar to Ekonda botolo hats worn by nkumu village chiefs. However, there are differences. The tiered brims on botolo hats made from woven raffia, typically turn upward and one or more copper and brass discs, losanja, are attached to the hat as in the example from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Village chiefs wear botolo hats to signify their rank within their communities. Considered a symbol of wealth and status, the nkumu wears his botolo during all public appearances and the attached discs enhance the beauty and prestige of the hat.

The end of ‘Ja Are E’ by Burna Boy sees a masquerade in full raffia costume crawling over the hood of a car. Many traditional masquerades make use of full raffia costumes as part of their ensemble including Tabwa kiyunde, Mende ndoli jowei, Igbo isiji dancers, and Bwa yehoti masqueraders. There are, of course, also contemporary examples—Nick Cave’s Soundsuit series borrows from traditional full raffia masquerades too.

Below is a video made for the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition, ‘Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone’, showing Mende dancers in their full raffia costumes.

"To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist." – Beyoncé

In ‘Brown Skin Girl’, Beyoncé wears a custom headdress by Timothy White similar to the flaring hairstyles worn by high-ranking Mangbetu women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the book ‘Hair in African Art and Culture’, Roy Sieber explained that “The funnel-shaped coiffure which ended in an outward halo, originally symbolic of high social status, was considered exceptionally attractive, and took a lot of time to create. Of the ornaments that embellished the hairstyles of the Mangbetu, and related ethnic groups, combs were reserved for women.”

Depictions of these halo-hairstyles are sculpted onto Mangebtu sundu palm-wine jars, modelled to mirror the coiffure worn by Mangbetu women, as in the example from the Cleveland Museum of Art. And as in the lyrics in ‘Brown Skin Girl’—”She need an Oscar for that pretty dark skin… Melanin too dark to throw her shade”—black was considered beautiful for these vessels. They were often black or near black in colour with highly burnished surfaces.

"They'll never take my power, my power, my power..." – Nija & Beyoncé

Subtle symbolism is used in ‘My Power’ where Moonchild Sanelly, Yemi Alade, Beyoncé, and Nija form a deconstructed version of the Akan adinkra bese saka symbol of affluence, power, abundance, and unity. Black women from different nations united in power, the iconography in the scene parallels the Akan bese saka philosophy of ‘unity in diversity’.

The four-petalled flower motif in the bese saka stamp from The British Museum also represents the ‘collectivity of kola nuts’. Kola nuts, cash crop closely associated with affluence and abundance, played a vital role in the economic life of Ghana where the trade of the nuts was said to bring people together. The stamp from The British Museum was used to print patterns onto adinkra cloth worn by Akan chiefs during periods of mourning, as illustrated in the Basel Mission photograph taken by Friedrich August Louis Ramseyer in 1895. A similar stamp would have been used to apply the patterns on The British Museum adinkra in the gallery above.

According to Herbert M. Cole and Doran Ross in ‘The Arts of Ghana’, “Several kinds [of adinkra cloth] exist, each named according to its colour. The three most common funerary adinkra are the dark brown kuntunkuni, the brick red kobene, and the black birisi.”

The motif also features in contemporary Ghanaian artist, Owusu-Ankomah’s, ‘Looking Back Into the Future’, currently at the Brooklyn Museum. Can you spot it?

Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere (Edo State, Nigeria, 1930–2014), known as J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, spent his entire career photographing the fashion, styles, and unique hairstyles of Nigerian women. Taking up photography in the 1950s, Ojeikere went on to create an archive of over ten thousand images over sixty years, documenting the changing styles of Nigerian fashion. His ‘Hairstyles’ series ultimately brought him international acclaim—his work has been exhibited at Documenta XII (2007), the 55th Venice Bienniale (2013) and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (2010). His work is also part of major museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Tate Modern, and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

His internationally acclaimed ‘Hairstyles’ and ‘Headdresses’ series may have been the inspiration for some of Beyoncé’s looks in ‘Water’ and ‘Brown Skin Girl’. In ‘Water, she wears a pink chiffon gown designed by Molly Goddard with a pink gele headdress similar to those worn by the women photographed by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere in his ‘Headgear’ series. Geles, usually worn during special occasions like weddings, are traditional Nigerian headwraps, wrapped and folded to form many different shapes and designs.

To all the beautiful women in Ojeikere photographs,

“…when you’re in the room, they notice you (notice you)
‘Cause you’re beautiful
Yeah, you’re beautiful.”

"The Orishas hold your hand through this journey that began before you were born. We never forget to say thank you to the ancestors, noble and royal, anointed our blessings in the stars." – Beyoncé

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know Yoruba art holds a special place in our heart. So when we saw Beyoncé reading a copy of Robert Farris Thompson’s, ‘Black Gods and Kings’ featuring the Yoruba art in the collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, we were gagged! Featured in the collection are egungun headdresses, epa helmet masks, and ilekun doors. We wonder if Beyoncé collects Yoruba art…

In the words of ‘Mood 4 Eva’:

She is “Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter”
She is “the Nala, sister of Naruba”
She is “Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother”

And boy does she live up to her name. This is a film we won’t forget, it’s our “mood forever, forever and ever”.

Related Articles

Royal Arts of Ghana
Free Book: Dogon – Images & Traditions
Artist Spotlight: Nathan Mabry, United States

Share this