Spanish Magazine Courts Controversy with Michelle Obama Cover

Photo courtesy of El MundoMichelle Obama has graced magazine covers from Time to People to Vogue looking powerful, beautiful, and downright regal, but now a Spanish magazine is picturing her bare breasted, and as a slave.

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The cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie, which is widely available in Spain as a newspaper lifestyles supplement, shows the first lady's face superimposed onto an 1800 portrait of a female slave by Marie-Guillemine Benoiste, a French neoclassical painter.

According to the magazine's editor, the picture is meant to honor Michelle Obama who they call the "gran mujer" (great woman) who "conquered the heart" of the man who would be president and "seduced the American people."

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Many commentators aren't seeing it that way. "Let's be clear: This image has nothing to do with acknowledging Obama's enslaved foremothers, and everything to do with reinforcing and extending the historical denial of black women's individuality…" writes Althea Legal-Miller for The Clutch. She continues "The portrait robs Obama of her identity, voice, and intellect, and visually shackles her to a politically passive subject, resigned to an assigned role as slave." The Frisky writer Jessica Wakeman calls it "plain old tasteless."

Some art historians describe the original painting as a tribute to emancipation in France, which occurred in 1794 and also as a feminist statement linking the universal bondage of women to the institution of slavery. Benoiste was one of the few established female artists of her era. The reality is, the majority of people today who encounter the image will have little knowledge of its art historical significance. Instead they will simply see the first lady of the United States as a half nude servant. Accompanied by the headline, "Michelle, Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America" it's more of a willfully ignorant attention-grab designed to spark controversy (and magazine sales) than a legitimate homage.

This is not the first time a magazine cover featuring Mrs. Obama has garnered accusations of racism. In 2008, the New Yorker published a satirical drawing of her decked out as a radical Black Panther fist bumping with her husband who is wearing a traditional Muslim robe.

Portrait of a female slave by Marie-Guillemine BenoisteWhile the Obamas entered office in a supposedly "post-racial" America, what they encountered was a country where bigotry is still alive and kicking and often stirred up by their very presence in the White House. At times serving as a surrogate punching bag for her husband, Michelle Obama is likely to be labelled in some quarters as an "angry black woman" instead of the smart, accomplished person who she is.

Mikki Taylor, former editor of Essence and author of Commander in Chic writes, "The looming shadow of racism is always there and it's very sad. Who was more feisty than Barbara Bush? Laura Bush always spoke her mind, but Michelle Obama takes the heat for being an independent-thinking woman. It's so clearly based on race and a backward way of thinking."

Karine Percheron-Daniels, the artist who created the image, isn't shedding any light on its underlying message. She is quoted saying she depicted the first lady in such a manner "for obvious reasons." She adds, "I'm sure [she] would love it, and I hope that someday she can see it." We suspect the first ladies' opinion would be, in her typically dignified fashion, "no comment."

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