Bow Down: On the Beyoncé Portrait Acquired by Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The historic image was taken by Tyler Mitchell — the first African-American to shoot the cover of Vogue  

BY Kadish Morris in Culture Digest | 09 AUG 19

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Aug 6, 2019 at 6:09am PDT

A portrait of Beyoncé has been acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. In the picture, the singer – wearing a sequined Valentino dress and Philip Treacy London headpiece – leans on a white column, topped with flowers, before a curtained backdrop. It’s gold, but it isn’t gaudy. With subtle make up, a soft pout and a cool gaze, Beyoncé strikes an effortless pose – one that is simultaneously humble yet regal. ‘Bow down bitches,’ she seems to say, but also: ‘I can’t believe we made it.’

Or perhaps the image, now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, is a comment on the belated acknowledgment of black excellence. Considering the photograph was taken for Vogue’s 2018 September issue by Tyler Mitchell – the first African-American photographer ever to shoot the cover for the 125-year-old fashion magazine – you could interpret Beyoncé’s posture and stare as emblematic of exasperated self-assuredness, of knowing you’re great, but having to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. Maybe she isn’t cool and relaxed, maybe she’s fatigued and pissed off. 

Writing on Instagram, Atlanta-born 24-year-old Mitchell said of the acquisition: ‘A year ago today, we broke the flood gates open. Since then, it was important to spend the whole year running through them making sure every piece of the gate was knocked down.’ 

The picture will hang alongside the 23,000 other portraits of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., which include images of civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, former US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. As yet, there is no news of when the singer’s glittering portrait will go on display. Its historical value, however, is already evident – long before it’s installed on a museum wall. 

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.