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Curator’s Choice: Marie Antoinette is Dead

by Katherine Smith

In Fabiola Jean-Louis’ photograph, Marie Antoinette is Dead, a Black woman leans back into a sumptuous pillowed seat, her body language suggesting casual, unflappable self-possession. She wears a voluptuous blue dress with pink accents, in a style and color that would have been favored by the last queen of France. In her left hand she holds a small blue nosegay made of forget-me-nots—an enduring symbol of memory; in her right—a faceless black doll (perhaps a childhood toy) dressed in a vivid yellow and red dress made of African fabric. The woman’s gaze is steady, inscrutable, and fixed on a distant point. Next to her are a chest with crystals, jars of herbs, vials of liquid, and cruciform wrapped bundles (reminiscent of Vodou power objects, pakèt kongo), all arranged atop a large book. Are these tools for magic? If so, what is she doing with them? And what of Marie Antoinette?

As part of Black History Month celebration, the Fowler invited photographer Fabiola Jean-Louis to participate in a public conversation with painter Andrew LaMar Hopkins. During her talk, Jean-Louis noted that in her work, beauty is always a vehicle for hard truths.

Marie Antoinette is Dead is exquisitely beautiful, but what hard truths does this image offer? The work is part of Jean-Louis’ series Rewriting History, which envisages the past as mutable and vital. In her staging of history, the wealth of 18th-century France cannot be seen without Black bodies and memories of Africa. But Jean-Louis rewrites the past for the living. Marie Antoinette’s death marked the end of an established order. Perhaps the Black woman in the portrait speaks of new worlds to come.

Katherine Smith is Curatorial and Research Associate of Haitian Arts, Fowler Museum at UCLA

Click here to watch Katherine Smith in conversation with artists Fabiola Jean-Louis and Andrew LaMar Hopkins, recorded February 18, 2021.

Image: Fabiola Jean-Louis (b. 1978, Port Au Prince, Haiti), Marie Antoinette is Dead, 2017; Image courtesy of the artist.

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