Written by Nkeiru Nkwocha
December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an Afro-Latinx artist who made his greatest impact on the New York art scene in the 70s. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, he grew up on the streets Brooklyn before making his way to New York City where he rose as a graffiti artist connected to the famous “SAMO” tag. As his work and popular tag took off in the underground market, he made budding appearances in the fine art market with neo-expressionist paintings that centered around the social injustice, racism, and class struggles, particularly in the Black community (Yellow Owl Workshop, 2019).
At a young age, Basquiat was an avid reader and had noticeably drew very well. He spoke 3 languages (French, Spanish, and English), and lived in Puerto Rico for a short time. When he was a child, he was hit by a car. His mother gave him a copy of the standard anatomy textbook Gray’s Anatomy to pass the time in recovery. Basquiat subsequently spent a lot of time studying these anatomies, from which the strong medical influence in his paintings are drawn from. His work was also largely inspired by his diverse cultural heritage. Some common topics he alluded to were powerful dichotomies such as integration vs segregation, wealth vs poverty, and inner vs outer experience (The Art Story, 2020).
Though most popular for his painting, he utilized more than just the painting medium. His works included poetry and drawing to intensify figures, designs, historical context, and abstract concepts on another level. Most of his poetry was heavily and politically inclined, especially in his spotlight criticism of colonialism and capitalism. The commentary around his pieces pushed boundaries as they spoke of deeper truths about the self/individual. He quickly went from his first group show in 1980 to his own solo exhibition in Milan, Italy the following year (Biography.com, 2020).
Basquiat is celebrated internationally, receiving acclaim for his ability to fuse animals, anatomy, words, symbols, and sticks; his most popular obsession with the crown and the representation of its complement to Basquiat’s obsession with the human head and skull is still referenced today. Though he suffered a fatal overdose at the young age of 27, Basquiat continues to be credited with bringing to the forefront the African American and Latinx experience in the elite art world (Biography.com, 2020).
Growing up, I was more academically inclined than I was artistically. I was a numbers girl, but I couldn’t draw a decent stick figure if my life depended on it. Performing arts was less foreign to me, but I was raised to focus on traditional studies. I didn’t begin tapping into my creative side until almost adolescence. I’d attended art history seminars curated by my elementary school in the past, learning about artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, and Pablo Picasso. Later, when I learned about Jean-Michel Basquiat, I was intrigued by how relatable his works were. From his background knowledge in anatomy and his fascination with the head and brain to his penchant for learning languages, we were similar in many ways. I was inspired by his dedication to explore and express his culture, and also by his unapologetic approach to exposing social, cultural, and political aspects of life and the self. Most important, I appreciate his pride in where he came from, and his application of this pride exuded in his works. He was proud to Afro-Latinx, proud to be who and what he was, perhaps the strongest lesson I received from his art.
Link to the Jean-Michel Basquiat Virtual Exhibition at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in New York: https://brantfoundation.org/exhibitions/jean-michel-basquiat-exhibition/
“Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 17 Aug. 2020, www.biography.com/artist/jean-michel-basquiat
“Basquiat Biography, Life & Quotes.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist/basquiat-jean-michel/life-and-legacy/
Workshop, Yellow Owl, et al. “10 Great Hispanic Artists Who Shaped Western Culture.” My Modern Met, 3 Oct. 2019, www.mymodernmet.com/famous-hispanic-artists/