Beyoncé, Borrowing, and the Beast

I like Beyoncé a lot. Am I jeopardizing my (completely unestablished) reputation by writing this? Maybe. But it’s Beyoncé. Everyone likes her. Except, perhaps, for South African photographer Pieter Hugo.

If you have seen Beyoncé’s video for “Run the World (Girls),” you may remember her holding two hyenas on a chain.

She’s making reference to Hugo and his series The Hyena & Other Men. Hugo’s fascination with the “Hyena Men” came about after a friend e-mailed a picture he had taken of a man walking a hyena on a chain in Lagos, Nigeria. The men, called “Gadawan Kura” (rough translation: “hyena guides”), were surrounded by myth and mystery and largely assumed to be drug dealers, bodyguards, thieves, and debt collectors. In fact they are itinerant performers who tame and work with hyenas, monkeys, and rock pythons to entertain and to sell traditional medicine. They are all related, and the tradition is passed down generation to generation. Through a journalist friend and a Nigerian reporter, Hugo was put in contact with the Gadawan Kura, who agreed to let Hugo travel with them for eight days. Two years later, with the project feeling unresolved, Hugo returned to Nigeria and took more photos. These images are more intimate, more informal, and reflect the trust and understanding the artist had developed with the hyena guides two years earlier and maintained over the interim.

Hugo’s fascination with the men and their relationship with the animals—at times doting, at times brutal—led to this series. It was this paradoxical relationship, and not the spectacle that surrounded their performances, that led to Hugo’s portraits. Thematically, Hugo explores the hybridization of the urban and the wild; the interplay of dominance, submission, and codependence; and the fraught relationship we have with ourselves, nature, and animals. In his text on the series, Hugo writes:

When I asked Nigerians, “How do you feel about the way they treat animals,” the question confused people. Their responses always involved issues of economic survival. Seldom did anyone express strong concern for the well-being of the creatures. Europeans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals, but this question misses the point. Instead, perhaps, we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why they are economically marginalized. Or why Nigeria, the world’s sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray.

The NCMA has been fortunate enough to have one of Hugo’s hyena photos, Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, on long-term loan. You can see it in the Modern and Contemporary Galleries in West Building.

Beyoncé’s use of the Hyena Men imagery raises questions about appropriation and exploitation, for the Gaduwan Kura and Pieter Hugo were never credited or compensated. The artist has said this about the singer’s video: “I don’t particularly like the Beyoncé song. It all seems so derivative—the music, the imagery … I’m sure the Hyena Men are wondering if they’re going to get paid!”

As for Beyoncé, she has released a statement acknowledging her use of “references” in her videos and stating, “I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.”

Whatever your feelings on plagiarism, exploitation, and pop culture, I’m pretty sure we can all agree on the awesomeness of the original. We also have a second Hugo photograph, Naasra Yeti, from his series Permanent Error. It is equally as arresting, stirring, and beautiful. Come by and see them. You won’t be disappointed.

P.S. The New Yorker wrote about it first. So did The Guardian.

—Catherine Smith is a curatorial intern at the NCMA.

Image: Pieter Hugo, Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Ogere-Remo, Nigeria, 2007, chromogenic print, On loan from the collection of Dr. Carlos Garcia-Velez

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