‘The Rape of Africa’ by David LaChapelle at the Robilant + Voena

There is no mistaking David LaChapelle’s style of photography. Often described as lurid, sensationally shocking, fantastical, outrageous, genius or even, as one critic claimed, tasteless. But one word that consistently comes up is simply, beautiful.
His images are drenched in a kaleidoscope of candy colours and the content is almost always shocking. He has shot nearly every celebrity and music icon of his generation, from Courtney Love holding a lifeless Kurt Cobain look-alike to his instantly recognizable portraits of silicone stars Pamela Anderson and Dolly Parton in bizarre situations (wrestling an obese masked women is always a favourite).
It would be petty, shallow even, to simply pigeon hole LaChapelle as a celebrity photographer. His work often references the Bible, Renaissance artists and lowbrow culture. His lurid images are not only drenched in a variety of colours, textures and a collection of props, but is also rich in layers upon layers of hidden meaning. In actual fact, LaChapelle’s era-defining work has held up a mirror to the face of our celebrity-obsessed times in a very calculated way. Take his latest work for example. ‘The Rape of Africa’ exhibition at the Robilant + Voena features Naomi Campbell in its title piece. Depicted as the African deity of Love, LaChapelle takes inspiration from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars to represent the corruption of Africa by the Western World.
The scene is set in a slum house decorated with packets of heavily ironic washing powder called ‘Sun’ as an intense and alien-looking Campbell smirks while the god of war snoozes languidly by her side. Three tiny child soldiers of whom two are holding machine guns gambol around the couple.  A portrayal of a devastated mining scene is seen though a jagged hole in the wall behind the abundant spoils of war.
As ever clues of the political meaning are picked up through the heavy symbolism involved. Blood diamonds, killer kids, solid gold grenades and a very Christian lamb saunters around the forefront of the image. Focusing his lens on the themes of religion, American culture and imperial power the viewer is literally surrounded by the message that LaChapelle is trying to convey – that God and War are USA’s obsessions.
The exhibition also includes images of Michael Jackson – one titled American Jesus – all as eye-poppingly polychromatic and brash as you’d expect.
Although LaChapelle has clearly established himself as an artist keenly aware of the visual language required to communicate his views on politics, his fans are safe in the knowledge that his work is as captivating, bold, and beautiful as ever.

The exhibition is on till 23rd June 2010

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David LaChapelle, Robilant + Voena,