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Basquiat: Boom for Real | Barbican

This is by no means a normal art exhibition. It is a journey through the hands, eyes and ears of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). From Egyptian literature and symbolism, to Ross Russell’s smooth jazz, to more pictorial sources like Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat immersed himself in these visual, written and musical inspirations. These examples proved to be incredibly influential in his future artistic outlook, all of which you will experience in this exhibit. It would have been a bright future for Basquiat, were it not catastrophically cut-short by a heroin-induced death at the age of 27. However, at this show- remarkably the first Basquiat show in the UK for more than 20 years- death is barely, if not at all, mentioned. Instead, every room celebrates a chapter in the artists life.

                                                    King Zulu (1986) CREDIT: © JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT 

Intimate footage of Basquiat is projected onto the walls upon entering. Walking through Manhattan, hanging out with Warhol, dancing to Duke Ellington in his studio; a glimpse of how his life would have been perceived by the media at the time. After first establishing his name as an underground graffiti artist, Jean-Michel’s profile quickly began to rise and he was consistently filmed and photographed from the age of 19. Following his career from street to gallery, we see images of Basquiat in pivotal moments of his life, alongside masterpieces that captured the attention of millions (of people and dollars). The first room is dedicated to New York/New Wave, and his work for the group exhibition MoMA PS1 is shown here almost in its entirety. It was the show that helped the New York graffiti artist to become a globally-known modern artist. His stunning works form a pervasive feeling that everything here, from witty slogans pasted on suburban walls to self-portraits depicted as a skull, was made in response to something that was going on at the time. A shrine to all the issues that affected Basquiat and the people around him.

                                                   Jawbone of an Ass (1982) CREDIT: © JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT

Although, it was barely mentioned in this exhibit, there was certainly a recurring theme of race intertwined in Basquiat's works. Most particularly, in his 1982 painting, Jawbone of an Ass, in which he lists historical figures including Hamilcar, Scipio and Hannibal, who played their parts in the punic war. Cartoon monsters, a collision of words and symbols, a black boxer beating up a white man; these represent elements of his cultural heritage on racial segregation and alienation. This painting not only captures the broken and tragic chaos of American history but it also reflects a fragmented individual. Race was a topic that became more prominent in Basquiat’s work and no wonder, even when the world wanted to buy his work for staggering amounts of money, he was denied a taxi home. From the horror of losing a friend and fellow artist to police brutality, to the more niggling irritation as being defined as a ‘black artist’, Basquiat’s frustration at radical injustice is palpable.

It put into perspective that perhaps we ought to be addressing the racism Basquiat suffered; as a kid growing up, at the feet of corrupt cops and most importantly, at the hands of the prestigious art world itself. Basquiat often mocked the art world’s tendency to reduce artists to their biography, however, he was also self-conscious of the stereotyping of black artists. He had to prove himself as a black man in a white world. It becomes clear, standing in front of a colourful explosion of one man’s mind, that his vision is needed now more than ever. By seeing it again through Basquiat’s eyes, it’s evident how little has changed in the last 30 years; Trump’s America, police brutality on both sides of the Atlantic and the racial discrimination individuals face every day across the globe.

Basquiat’s art is irrevocably intertwined with his life. Towards the end, the anger and frustration expressed in his last few paintings is striking. It seems only right by Jean Michel-Basquiat to continue fighting racism and social hypocrisies, so that one day, freedom might be a possibility.

  • Basquiat: Boom for Real is at Barbican Art Gallery, London, from 21 September to 28 January.
  • Words: Dionne Myrianthous