Basquiat, to me, is an identity crisis with a paintbrush. Someone who was as sketchy, complex, layered and distressed as their artwork. It's not a typical way to look to someone as inspiration, but there's a lot that I take from seeing an artist relish and thrive in their own complexities and anxieties.
Basquiat resonates with artists who feel marginalised, but not by being some kind of 'voice of the people' character. He resonates because he embodies and he addressed the conflict and struggle that comes with striving for success in amongst the elitist nature of the arts. And it really is a conflict; we look at Basquiat as one of the most influential artists of recent history who at the time was listed as 'wild', like the big-bad-dangerous-urban-jungle-man of the arts. An idea like that diminishes the artist’s legacy and completely overlooks the genius of his work and the intelligence that he was very aware of in himself.
Basquiat's art, to me, comes from a place of creative genius. The way the figures and text are exploded on to the canvas, it's a whole other language of brilliant communication. Even years after his death when we look at his work we're still in conversation, still in conflict. I can't say this inspires me to 'become a better artist', but it inspires me because I am convinced that art is communication and to hold on to the conviction that I could tell you everything and then some with my body, with a paintbrush, with a spray can.
As a ‘small island’ black girl growing up in a West Midlands suburb I felt somewhat disconnected from the dominant black music and culture of Jamaica, so I turned instead to the US. The hip-hop scene that Jean-Michel Basquiat rose from had me hooked as New York shaped and influenced the youth cultures of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.
I studied Basquiat feverishly (independently - he wasn’t mentioned during my art A level or masters) while soaking up Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. In his work entitled Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), he depicted how 25-year- Michael Stewart was beaten by police officers because of his graffiti art and later died from his injuries. Over 30 years later this work is now more relevant than ever in our so-called post-racial society.
Basquiat made me feel normal in wanting to delve into the black experience, my reality AND across invisible lines to draw from multiple sources of inspiration (old, new, black, white, high art, popular art & technology). I didn’t know back then that graffiti artists questioned the authenticity of his work, that black people accused him of selling out, and that the white art elite questioned his right to be there. It isn’t a stretch for me now however, to imagine how he might have struggled with the dichotomy of different worlds and the challenges of fitting in nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.
As I celebrate Basquiat’s success and undeniably incredible talent, it also reminds me why he and I felt/feel so connected to black music – because its innovation and evolution is less easy to constrain. There would be many more Basquiat’s if opportunities were fairly distributed. He was a chosen one, but not the only one.
He was a trailblazer and he was the first artist to upset the racial status quo in the Western art world. His ideas feel real.
As an artist, a musician and a theatre maker I connect strongly to Basquiat’s anger, his frustration with the historical lines drawn across current society, his sense of rage and rebellion. I started my own art - initially as a performer, an actor, a rapper a DJ – and was informed by my environment, the streets of East London. I fell in love with hip-hop and its associated cultural forms including graffiti. Through hip-hop I fell in love with New York, Jazz, Harlem, Brooklyn, Long Island, the Bronx and the streets Jean-Michel grew up around. I became acquainted with the heroes of the civil rights movement and became politicised around issues of identity, big city living and what it means to be marginalised as a black artist in a white world. I connect strongly to the fury in Basquiat’s work – the depiction of the terrifying, the shattered and the disconnected and the fierceness of his attack.
nitroBEAT Pit Party - Suckerpunch Boom Suite, 29 & 30 Sept, Barbican Centre