As an artist who grew up alongside the likes of Robert '3D' Del Naja (Massive Attack) during the 80's at the epicentre of Bristol's creative melting pot, I feel blessed to have been introduced to Basquiat's existence courtesy of The Face Magazine (R.I.P), which prompted me to go to his UK debut exhibition at The ICA. Whilst Bob and Marcia's 'Young Gifted and Black' alongside Bob Marley and Muhammed Ali installed pride of my black skin and Jamaican heritage in me, Basquiat confirmed my existence as an artist.
Seeing someone who looked like me being intuitively creative whilst provocative in his wordplay and shedding light on black histories was a revelation. To this day it gives me the strength to continue broadcasting by any medium necessary whilst asking blunt, relevant and meaningful questions that tackle human suffrage, racism, gender exploitation, injustice, control and the hyper normalisation of humanity.
I do not need your permission. Do not pigeonhole me. Thank you Jean – Michel.
Like Basquiat, I too was heavily influenced by a book. For him it was the famous Gray's Anatomy given to him by his mother when he was in hospital after being in an accident. This book would become a profound influence on Basquiat throughout much of his work. The book that influenced me was Mildred D Taylor's Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Seemingly voiceless, strong women like Cassie Logan feature heavily in my writing.
What I take from Basquiat’s work is to bring to the forefront the richness and complexities of the black voice. Voices that can in some communities and parts of the world, be stifled, but knowing underneath that there is strength. This is what has drawn me to Basquiat and his influence continues to highlight the power and strength of black culture.
Heading off to art school I was full of ideas and heavily into street art and graffiti - a world that allowed me to experiment with colour, typography and illustration without constraint. Sadly, my first day didn’t go as planned due to my first lecturer snarling ‘that’s not art!’ It was clear from day one I didn’t fit into contemporary art school, something that was continually used as a form of attack and humiliation.
It wasn’t until I started doing photography that everything clicked (no pun intended!). There were less ‘rules’ with photography and I could experiment the way I did with graffiti. I began to explore art history, searching out artists that didn’t fit in with or play by established rules. It was around this time I discovered Basquiat, he faced the same vitriol from the established white-washed art world. His eventual demise was unfortunately not an isolated occurrence. Still to this day, dealers, art critics, large galleries and predominantly middle aged white people decide, as did my ‘teachers’, what art is and what it isn’t.
Basquiat taught me that his chaotic (to some) way of working, taking influence from music, literature and history is my foundation. Yes, he was a flawed individual in some areas, but so are all focused creative people. He did it his way and left a legacy of not only incredible art but a cautionary handbook of the dangers of success.
On the surface it looks like Jean-Michel Basquiat exploded out of nowhere, at an outrageously young age, to bless the universe with his raw talent, giving us some of the most iconic and visceral artworks of the 20th century. But he’s not an exception and to call him an artistic genius and to revere him as such does him and his work a disservice, not least because it others him, casting him in gold and hanging him up high where in death like in life he is stripped of context and treated as exotic and not of this world.
Basquiat strikes me as someone who was deeply committed to their art and who protected it with a fierceness I find inspiring. He knew there was nothing else he could do and he went for it despite having no money, no house, against the wishes of his Caribbean father (that’s massive) and as a young black man in America (also very massive).
As an artist that works across disciplines I’ve really struggled with my sense of identity. This feeling of not quite being part of any one world is also something reflected in my personal identity as a mixed race man living in England. He embodied this difficult sense of inbetweenness and used it as a means to transcend convention, freely creating beautiful artwork.
There’s a deep isolation that comes with not quite being part of any one thing, of being alien everywhere you go and ultimately this may have been one of things that contributed to his tragic death. I think one aspect of the power of Basquiats work lies in its ability to make you feel less alone somehow. I hope other people feel the same way and I just wish Basquiat had more Basquiats around him to get it.
nitroBEAT Pit Party - Suckerpunch Boom Suite, 29 & 30 Sept, Barbican Centre