Karl Lagerfeld is a talented designer known for his skills as a visual artist. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the head of the house of Chanel worked with a German newspaper to publish an image of President Obama in honor of the 2012 presidential election. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran the picture last Thursday after Lagerfeld hastily created it on Wednesday upon hearing that the president had secured re-election.
Drawn with Shu Uemura make-up, Lagerfeld’s portrayal features Obama holding a cake shaped like the White House aloft while dressed as a chef, standing in front of the American flag.
Lagerfeld described Obama as an “inspiring” subject for his sketch in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily.
“The Chanel creative captioned the drawing in German, with the words ‘Der Größte Chef der Welt’, meaning the Biggest Boss in the World,” according to the Daily Mail.
WWD states that Obama looks “proud” in this depiction, while Leila Brillson of the top fashion blog Refinery29 believes that Lagerfeld has shown “a charming awareness of world affairs” through this picture.
But not all culture watchers see this President Obama painting as positive.
“It amazed me how many press outlets saw this as inspirational,” states Robyn Webb of the black women’s site Clutch Magazine. “The sketch brought to mind of a scene in Spike Lee’s X where Malcolm X reenacts a moment from popular minstrel shows; he plays a waiter who takes on a ‘yassa boss, whatever you want boss…’ dynamic when serving white patrons. ‘Say boss, how dem cakes?’”
Other mainstream outlets such as The Gloss merely found the image incomprehensible.
To be fair, “der chef” is the German translation of “the boss” from English. The play on words between the image with the caption makes perfect sense in that literal context. It is the connotation of the image, particularly for black audiences, that suggests an ignorance of the history of racism on the part of the creator and publisher — one that continues to complicate black representations in Europe.
Even a rudimentary awareness of troubling, servile icons for blacks such as Aunt Jemima would render the idea of painting Obama holding a tray a no-no for most. The fact that a man as storied as Lagerfeld found it appropriate is alarming.
Recently, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana caused an international uproar by including “blackamoor” earrings in its Spring 2013 runway presentation — little black female heads dangling from the ears of white models that many saw as modern “mammies.” Lagerfeld has unfortunately created a parallel phenomenon by showing the most powerful black man in the world — possibly of all time — in a similarly stereotypical role.
The image may call President Obama a “chef,” but visually pegs him as an “Uncle Ben.”
After a Spanish magazine used an image of first lady Michelle Obama painted as a topless slave for a recent cover this year, it is clear that something might be missing in translation in how some leaders of Europe’s creative class perceive American blacks.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.