In the summer of 2014, revered artist Kara Walker unveiled her much-discussed piece “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The sculpture, a nude “Mammy” sugar statue in a provocative, sphinx-like pose, was mostly praised by critics. However, it was also subject to crude gestures and “selfies” from viewers.
Roughly a year later, rapper and singer Nicki Minaj’s image was unveiled at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. The likeness is taken from her record-breaking “Anaconda” video in which Minaj brags about her sexual conquests as her male rap counterparts often do. It also displays her slicing phallic foods like bananas, and swatting a crestfallen Drake’s hands away from her behind. The video sexualizes Nicki Minaj, but with a clear message — she celebrates her sexuality for her own enjoyment, not that of a man’s.
Many have been disappointed with the museum’s positioning of her on all fours, and with the ensuing lewd gestures from museum-goers. With this public reaction, the female rap artist’s image has renewed the conversation around the sexualization of black female bodies. However, many fail to answer or even ask the question: who is in control of this sexualization?
Some critics, such as rapper Azealia Banks blame Madame Tussauds, allegedly tweeting “Wow, they finally give Nicki Minaj a wax figure and it’s a statue of her bent over on all fours…… White people yo….” The tweet, widely quoted online, appears to have been deleted. While blogger Rhapsodani writes, “The saddest thing about this is Nicki’s approval. I’m only assuming she had some type of approval and if she did, that’s what’s wrong here. We’ve gotten so used to our image being abused as black women that we mindlessly abuse it ourselves.”
Both Banks and Rhapsodani agree in their distaste for the image, but place the blame on different parties. The controversy points to a paradox: Black women are often blamed for their objectification, while also made to feel they do not control their bodies.
Nicki Minaj has expressed appreciation for her statue. “I love it and I can’t wait to see it” she posted on Instagram, but has since also expressed disappointment at patrons’ lewd behavior. While she may have been in creative control of her video, she cannot exercise this same control over her image’s reception on camera or in wax. This same problem was presented in Walker’s “Subtlety.” The sculpture, much like Nicki Minaj’s video, is meant to challenge the public’s discomfort with black female bodies, particularly those that are full-figured and thus deemed more provocative.
Though one can posture that Minaj wanted the same effect when she approved the use of that image for her statue, one cannot know. Madame Tussaud’s statues are meant to be interactive. However, Minaj seems genuinely surprised at visitors’ behavior: “Why must y’all b this way (pensive emoji)…” she tweets. Walker, on the other hand, is fully aware of people’s crass tendencies when she reveals months later that she has secretly filmed her audience, and has turned their reactions into a movie. “I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It’s not unexpected…Sometimes I get a sort of kick out of…that there’s gotta be this way to sort of control human behavior….I’ve got a lot of footage of that [behavior]. I was spying” Walker tells the Los Angeles Times.