Artist and visionary Jean Michel Basquiat rocketed to fame in the early 1980’s, after his ‘Samo’ and signature three-pronged crown street tags gained attention from those on the fringes of the bustling New York arts scene. An unconventional artist Basquiat made canvases out of garbage he found in the streets, any and everything was a potential canvas. A discarded door, a soiled piece of fabric embodied a duality that only Basquiat saw as he scampered through downtown Manhattan.
It is hard not to think of Jimi Hendrix when Jean Michel Basquiat is mentioned. The parallels are eerie; both were tortured artists trying to express their world, their truth, in a new revolutionary way. Both were denied acceptance by their immediate black peers and sadly, both died at 27 due to drug overdoses. However, both have found fame, and acceptance posthumously evidencing that their creative genius and brilliance was before its time.
Now is the Time is the name of Basquiat exhibit on display at Toronto’s AGO, and how timely and prophetic the title is. Many of Basquiat’s most acclaimed works bear an untarnished timelessness and relevance that makes them authentic in the most painful of ways.
After the death of fellow graffiti artist Michael Stewart at the hands of a New York city police officer Basquiat created a piece on canvas called Defacement. In it two red faced police officers brandish batons over the head of a faceless black figure, the word ‘Defacemento?’ is scrolled at the top. Basquiat was deeply affected by the murder of Michael Stewart and famously said, “It could have been me.” Much like the Black Lives Matter movement of today Basquiat was enraged that a young black man could be killed in the streets for what amounted to a misdemeanor crime. As protestors fill the streets for the second week in Baltimore protesting the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police Basquiat’s painting is as relevant today as it was on the late September night in 1983 when Michael Stewart was killed.
The Irony of the Negro Policeman. 1981, Jean Michel Basquiat
The Irony of the Negro Policeman is another prophetic piece by Basquiat and is especially pertinent in Toronto with the recent appointment of the first black chief of police in the city’s history. The painting depicts a large black figure wearing what appears to be multiple hats, this may be indicative of the many hats/faces the average black man must dawn to navigate the world. The figure wears a yellow smear on its chest, it could be a blurred badge alluding that although he is a police officer he is still an outsider amongst the police or lacks the complete power of an officer.
Another recurring theme in Basquiat’s work is the celebration of black excellence. He often literally tore his heroes off the screen or out of the radio and transfixed them into a classically chaotic Basquiat background. Whether it is Charlie Parker, Jesse Owens or Cassius Clay, Basquiat paid homage to their lasting legacy by immortalizing them in his paintings. However, he was deeply aware that fame for a black man came with a duality that he seemed to equate with selling his soul or selling out, this recurring trope is evidenced by the repetition of the words ‘black soap’ in many of Basquiat’s paintings. For him fame meant a sort of white washing of one’s self in order to be sanitized enough for white audiences.
Black Soap. 1981, Jean Michel Basquiat.
In the piece Not For Sale/Obnoxious Liberals, Samson of biblical fame is standing arms spread above his head, a red faced figure stands between Samson and a figure wearing a farmers hat with dollar signs on his torso. The red-faced centre figure has Not for Sale written on his torso. Samson appears to represent a slave in the midst of a slave auction; the man in the middle is denoted with the words obnoxious liberals above his head.
My favourite pieces are less political and more celebratory and reflective. I am especially fond of his self portraits. Like Picasso’s self portraits it is fascinating to glimpse the artist’s interpretation of themselves. Basquiat’s self portraits and the untitled images that I perceive as self portraits are intricate paintings that try to convey Basquiat’s unique complexity. Whether it’s a skull full of words and images or a head with a bell jar body there is an unseen depth that his self portraits contain that makes them mesmerizing to stare at and try to decipher.
Over his brief career Basquiat completed over 1000 works of art and worked on a collaborative series with Andy Warhol that helped renew interest and acclaim for Warhol’s work. Basquiat used the streets as a muse and was able to cement a permanent and legitimate place for street art and pave the way for the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat pose inside a studio featuring their collaborative work. 1985. Credit: AP
The Now is the Time exhibit at the AGO is a phenomenal exhibition of Basquiat’s work and includes a free downloadable tour that offers great insight into the individual pieces as well as its greater cultural relevance. The show is on display until May 9.