There’s a lot to unpack in Beyoncé’s symbolically rich “visual album” “Lemonade,’’ which debuted on HBO last weekend. It’s a journey through marital betrayal; it’s an ode to the women of the African diaspora; it’s a fantastic pop-art film. But let’s talk about one dress.
It appears about 45 minutes in, just as Beyoncé is closing in on healing and forgiveness. The style is all antebellum: tight bodice and “leg o’ mutton” sleeves, a full skirt poofing out below. But the material is a blue and yellow Dutch wax print, the cotton fabric that’s come to be almost emblematic of West Africa.
The dress’s designer has not been identified, but it’s clearly inspired by the work of Yinka Shonibare (whose art Beyoncé has featured on her blog). The British-Nigerian artist creates headless models wearing Victorian clothes all made of wax print; in his “Girl Ballerina,” for example, a model is posed like the famous Degas statue, but her tutu is made of wax print cloth and her hands clasp a gun behind her back.
Shonibare’s work is ambiguous, and so is the cloth itself. Also known as ankara cloth, it originated in the 1800s as ersatz batik sold to West Africans by a Dutch company. Even today, most wax print cloth is manufactured in Holland. “A picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe; an image of ‘African’ fabric isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African,” Shonibare has said.
Shonibare reappropriates a European import — the cloth — to remake symbols of European cultural dominance in the spirit of Africa. In a way, he bears kinship to Les Sapeurs, the Congolese men who use imported French suits to create a uniquely African statement of style (Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, featured Sapeurs in her music video “Losing You”).
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about “Lemonade’’ is how effortlessly it entangles personal and communal history. At the end, Beyoncé whispers, in the words of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire: “With every tear came redemption; my torturer became my remedy.” She’s talking about reconciliation with her husband. But she’s also talking about the cultural reconciliation that artists like Shonibare create with their work. Using the tools of an oppressor to create something vital and new is something all post-colonial artists know, and Beyoncé is no exception.