News Column

G2: Arts: My best shot: David LaChapelle: 'I chose Naomi to represent Venus and Africa, a continent that has been raped for its resources'

May 29, 2014



In 2009, I read an expose about the gold trade in National Geographic magazine. Then, later that year, I found myself looking at Botticelli's Venus and Mars in London'sNational Gallery. I was struck by its power. It's a postcoital scene: Mars, god of war, is sleeping on all his spoils, while Venus, goddess of love, is looking unsatisfied. Things haven't changed much, I thought. Greed and war versus love and beauty.

I decided to take elements from the painting and transform them. Satyrs became child soldiers; I made Venus's dress ripped, alluding to rape, and there's a mine visible through a hole in the backdrop. I was thinking a lot about the gold mines in Africa, the deplorable conditions for workers and damage the mines do to the environment. They are so huge you can see them from space.

I wanted Venus to represent Africa, a continent that has been, and continues to be, raped - because that's where all the resources lie. Botticelli used Simonetta Vespucci, an aristocrat famous for her beauty, as his model. Who, I wondered, is today's best known beauty of African descent? Naomi Campbell came to mind.

The photograph, called The Rape of Africa, is a critique of a global society fuelled by greed and power. I made it after the financial collapse, when we were being advised to invest in gold and gold production spiked tenfold. The irony is that by putting your money into gold, you are ensuring more devastation, more climate change, more destruction in Africa.

A strange thing happened when the shot was on display in New York. Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord credited with inventing child soldiers, was in the news. His story resonated hugely with themes in the photograph. There was also the trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and the story of Naomi being handed a bag of diamonds after a dinner Taylor and Nelson Mandela were present at. People asked me if I had put the big diamond next to her on purpose, but I hadn't. I didn't know anything about it at the time.

The shoot was like a circus: there were kids crying and goats and chickens running around. I enjoy the theatricality of putting shots together, with set-builders, make-up artists and models all working in unison. It's noisy, but I can focus in chaos. It took about 10 days to build the set but the process started long before that, with research, sketches and casting.

People who see my work assume it's all done in post-production, but you can't do this on Photoshop. When you see this picture large, you can see every pore on Naomi's skin. The mine was a model and photographed separately, so it could be in focus at the same time as the foreground - but it was all there.

I stopped working for magazines in 2006 because I felt I had said all I had to say in that world. It didn't occur to me that I could make photographs like this one for galleries. To be honest, I didn't think the art world would have me.

Interview by Karin Andreasson. David LaChapelle: Land Scape is at Robilant and Voena, London W1, until 18 June.

THE CV:

Born: 1963, Connecticut.

Studied: North Carolina School of the Arts

Influences: Michelangelo, Michael Jackson, Odilon Redon

High point: "When Jablonka Galerie filled their entire booth at Frieze with my photographs."

Low point: "After making the films Rize and Red Piano, my assistant told me we'd been working for 11 months without a day off."

Top tip: "Turn off your cellphone, iPad and computer."


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Guardian (UK)


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