The ongoing Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican Centre,”Boom for Real,” is a poet’s dream.
I don’t say that simply because of the way words and images intermingle secretly and symbolically in Basquiat’s work. I’m not even talking about Basquiat’s notebooks, filled with poetry that’s written in artistic and legible handwriting as if it were meant to be mounted on a gallery’s wall.
It’s all of the B’s: Basquiat, Barbican, boom. Brilliant, for his age. And a certified art-school babe, if we’re being frank. Blondie, the frontwoman of which is a recurring character in the performance of Basquiat’s life. Blackness, at the forefront, always. Both good and bad. Brooklyn, the borough Basquiat hailed from.
Early on Sunday morning, Allison, Minji, Haley and I made our way to the Barbican to get a glimpse into the visionary’s life.
The exhibition traced the trajectory of Basquiat from quirky, eager teenager to well-traveled, well-seasoned, well-renowned artiste. The works I saw were mostly from the early 80s, with one key relic (Basquiat’s interview with Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis) being from 1985.
As a whole, Basquiat’s work is pervaded by themes of race, class, what it means to be creative, and how humans navigate all three of these constructs.
The Body + Blackness
The crucial nature of Basquiat’s race to his work is hard to miss. Just from looking at this half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican man with a
head full crown of dreadlocks, what else would you expect?
Although he was soft-spoken, Basquiat’s work shouted pro-black.
He painted his favourite black musicians, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His favourite black boxers, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, also came to life on the canvas. When walking around “Boom for Real,” I saw Basquiat’s depiction of a victorious Jack Johnson from 1982.
Apart from a triumphant round in the ring, Johnson’s fist here can also be read as a physical gesture of Black Power.
Another work I saw at the Barbican, “Charles Darwin,” is right in-line with Basquiat as a pro-black figure. Here he depicts the fathers of genetics and biology: Thomas Henry Huxley, Gregor Mendel and of course, Charles Darwin. This could just be written off as an expression of Basquiat’s general nerdiness as an autodidact.
But notice a phrase in the upper righthand corner: the origin of cotton. It’s a phrase that pops up in a few of Basquiat’s works and is also the name of another one of his drawings. By evoking the imagery of cotton and roots, Basquiat is asking his viewers to think about the kind of labour needed for its harvest.
Then, the piece takes on a more sinister connotation. With Charles came social Darwinism, which laid the foundation for white Europeans to justify colonialism and slavery.
The Body + Capitalism
Beyond whiteness as a hegemonic power, Basquiat was also interested in economic domination. Allison and I sat to watch a bit of “Downtown 81,” also known as “New York Beat.” It was shot in 1980 and (you guessed it!) 1981, but was released in 2000.
Essentially, it’s about the gritty, glitzy life of New York City. From the snippet we watched, it seemed like the exploitation of artists was main issue Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien were trying to shed light on.
We saw Basquiat get lectured about what “real” artists’ concerns are. We watch an up-and-coming musician get messed over by club promoters, critics and record label heads. We see his bandmate, a stripper, fend off gross men at the club.
On the flipside, we also see Basquiat, however annoyed he may be with being patronized, get wealthy white people to pay for his pieces because he knows his worth.
If pay any attention to Jay-Z (beyond, you know, all the “Lemonade”-related stuff), you pick up on Shawn Carter’s adoration for Basquiat. Whereas other rappers are pointing to Michael Jordan as the epitome of excellence, Jay-Z brags, “I’m the new Jean-Michel” in “Picasso Baby.”
He also bought a Basquiat painting in 2013, hence the line, “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner / Go ‘head and lean on that sh*t, Blue, you own it.”
Jay-Z also dressed up as him for Halloween, so it’s safe to say he is more than a little passionate about Basquiat. And it’s not hard to see why: their New York City-flavoured, drugs-sprinkled, rags-to-riches stories run quite parallel.
Apart from turn-of-the-century references, Basquiat draws on biblical history as well.
One of the most striking images for me (as a giddy, know-it-all fan entering this exhibition) was Basquiat’s “Ishtar” triptych. I can’t recall ever seeing it before this morning.
It stood out to me because I love the turquoise hue. It just felt so different from the earthy, hungry, passionate, living-breathing browns and blacks and reds and oranges and yellows running throughout Basquiat’s work. Of course, even with a cool color, Basquiat painted warmly.
If you look closely at the first painting in the triptych, you’ll see the photocopied drawings that Basquiat used as a sort of foundation. This is supposed to be the background of the piece, looking like hieroglyphs on a wall. The aesthetic makes sense, given that Ishtar is an Egyptian goddess of fertility and war.
Keeping up with the African mythology theme, he references Isis, the Egyptian rainbow goddess. Isis’ sacred animal is the cow, which is why, in teeny tiny letters, you can make out “hwch,” “zog,” “suster” and “sos.” These are words for pig in various language.
Basquiat drew on the 1912 book “The Lost Language of Symbolism” for inspiration.
It’s hard to pin “esprit” down as one particular thing in English. It’s your spirit, but it’s more than that. It’s your personality, your wit and your way of being. I think the closes word I can come up with is your “vibe.” But it’s a little cooler than vibe. It’s your whole swag essence.
Getting a taste of Basquiat’s esprit was my absolute favourite part of the exhibition. Every time I go to a solo collection, I am so moved by the little personal touches that make showing up worthwhile.
Reading artists’ notebooks is all the rage these days. It’s post-modern society’s answer to dissecting correspondences for post-humous gossip and perspectives.
As I mentioned before, Basquiat’s notebooks are strange and not just because of the content. It’s less developed than an anthology of poems, but they’re too polished in presentation for mere diary entries. They aren’t neatly written, per se, but they are written in a very read-able version Basquiat’s caps-locked scrawl.
I was tickled to see him ranking his faves: (Jim) Jarmusch, (Jean-Luc) Godard, (Muhammad) Ali. Miles Davis, of course. Prince, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Deniro, Ringo Starr, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, too. All of these iconic individuals had a certain esprit about them. A certain charisma.
It was so wild, too, to think about Basquiat’s career picking up when he was just 19-years-old. He was a bit younger than I was when he snagged a prime spot for 15 of his at P.S. 1 Long Island, a revered art gallery. (All of the works are at “Boom for Real,” in the order and presentation style of the original gallery space.)
How could a kid be in the leagues of and calmly conduct himself with Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and William Burroughs?
It’s for this reason I am so interested in Basquiat’s relationship with celebrity culture. There is this wonderful group of polaroids by Maripol (who was involved with Bertoglio at the time) of all the key players of the scene. I recognized Grace Jones, Sade and Debbie Harry.
I loved seeing Basquiat’s portrait of Keith Haring. Likewise, my heart got so warm reading about how much Basquiat looked up to Andy Warhol, how he got acquainted with him and how, imbued with creative fervor, immediately came back to Warhol with a painting of the two of them.
Even though The New York Times wrote their friendship off, they remained creative partners and close friends for years. How many kids do you know who are out here seriously collaborating and forming intense relationships with their faves?
It’s not clear if Basquiat was starstruck. As much as he boldly drove ahead with the heavyweights, he didn’t seem it.
As for realizing the novelty of his talent at his age, I saw a glimpse of recognition. There’s a painting of Pablo Picasso on display at “Boom for Real.” It’s Picasso as a kid, but wearing the type of sweaters he was partial to as an adult.
If you lean in real close, you can see “Picasso as a 15-year-old” obscured by crimson paint. It looks like a little nod, at least, to the shared of experience of being so gifted at such a young age.
Basquiat is often quote as saying, “I am not a black artist. I am an artist.” At first glance, it sounds like he’s going off on a sort of Raven Symone-esque, “I am not black” tangent.
But after seeing him speak (in a “Boom for Real” projection and elsewhere), I get it. It’s not about being “colour-blind” or other kinds of erasure. It’s about holding people accountable. It’s about asking to be respected for the entirety of your being when your ascribed identity seeks to block that out.
In the interview at “Boom for Real,” Basquiat was pleading that black people be portrayed as anything but the thieves and criminals that were and are commonplace. He wanted black folks, including himself, to be seen as human.
Mulling over that quote, I wondered what he’d think of media like “Moonlight” and “Insecure” and “Get Out” and “Hidden Figures,” and people like Solange Knowles and Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean who were pushing for cleverness and humanity.
I wondered what he would think “Boom for Real” when it came to putting up his own humanity, the most intimate parts of him, on display.