Basquiat, artist defender of Afro-American communities

Basquiat, artist-defender advocate for African-American communities

The exhibition Full Volume: Basquiat and Musiccurrently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, demonstrates that the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is usually associated with painting, calls upon several other media: music — the main theme of this exhibition -, literature , comics, cinema and… animation, a much lesser known part of his work.

Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. Towards the end of the 1970s, he drew enigmatic graffiti in collaboration with Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO. The artist quickly became known in the New York art world (he became friends with Andy Warhol in particular and frequented Madonna). He then produced pictorial works in solo and obtained an ever-growing international reputation until his death in 1988.

At the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is more relevant than ever. It highlights racial inequalities and the lack of representation in the media of racialized people, but also the violence suffered by African Americans.

This is what I propose to explore in this article. PhD student in literature and performing and screen arts, my research focuses in particular on the interactions between animated cinema and the visual arts (comics, painting) as well as on American cartoons.

Love/hate for cartoon

As a child, Basquiat dreamed of becoming an animator for animated films. Once he became a painter, the television was always on in his studio, regularly showing cartoons. These shows and films were a great source of inspiration for the artist. Indeed, he has integrated several references to animation or even comic strips into his paintings.

One of these works that can be seen in the MMFA exhibition is calls Toxic (1984). The painting depicts a black man with his arms in the air, with a collage in the background mentioning several titles of animated short films made between 1938 and 1948.

The character is actually a friend of Basquiat, artist Torrick “Toxic” Ablack. The title of the table would therefore refer to it. However, knowing that Basquiat was playing with words and their meanings, “Toxic” could in fact mean the relationship he has with the animated films that are mentioned behind the character.

Could we say that these films are considered toxic by Jean-Michel Basquiat, despite the admiration he has for them? In fact, I believe that a certain duality settles in this painting: the artist loves the cartoon, but he hates it at the same time. According to the dictionary Le Petit Robert, the word “toxic” can mean “harmful” (in a sneaky way). The term “sneaky” therefore implies that the toxic element (the cartoon in this case) is dangerous without our realizing it.

Basquiat, artist-defender of afro-american communities

The work “Toxic”, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the right in the photo, is inspired by American cartoons and denounces the violence of American society. At a time of the Black Lives Matter movement, Basquiat's work is more relevant than ever. (MBAM)

The violence of cartoons

Cartoons are often associated with childhood, pleasure, eccentricity.

This is a universe where anything is possible: in Gorilla My Dreams, directed by Robert McKimson in 1948, for example, the rabbit Bugs Bunny speaks, disguises himself as a baby and imitates a monkey. Rather innocent. However, the cartoon can also represent the worst of humanity in a very sneaky way by the incredible violence it contains: the characters chase each other, chase each other, hit each other, cut each other, kill each other, then start again. Robert McKimson, Gorilla My Dreams, Warner Bros., 1948.

Thus, in Porky's Hare Hunt, a film directed by Ben Hardaway in 1938 and quoted in Toxic, the character of Porky is injured by dynamite, is mistreated while he is in his hospital bed trying to put down a rabbit. Basquiat, who consumes cartoons every day on television, knows that they are a reflection of 20th century American society.

This is an interpretation that could be supported by the title of another of his paintings, also using iconography from animation or comics: Television and cruelty to animals (1983). This cruelty is also denounced and reproduced in An Opera (1985) showing a Popeye being beaten with the words “senseless violence” above his head. (unjustified violence) as well as in A Panel of Experts (1982), where we see matchstick figures hitting each other with a huge revolver.

This violence that Basquiat denounces is so present in the cartoon that it seems up to a certain point to have become commonplace, like that which we see in the news bulletins on television (which he probably watched while he painted ).

Speak-out racial stereotypes

These cartoons are also violent because they often perpetuate racial stereotypes (not to mention the many stereotypes related to sexual orientation, gender, sex, body appearance, etc.).

The 1940 film Patient Porky, directed by Bob Clampett, which is also mentioned in Toxic, features a scene where an elevator man crudely and monstrously parodies a character black. In the work Untitled (All Stars) (1983), Basquiat quotes the film The Chinaman, by Max Fleischer, made in 1920, in which we find a very caricatured character of Asian origin and a Koko the clown putting on makeup to look like him. Max Fleischer, The Chinaman, Bray Studios, 1920.

Basquiat therefore tries, by placing in his compositions elements referring to animation, to denounce a stereotypical and unfair vision of the world where racialized people are portrayed in an unrealistic way. Basquiat also said that if he hadn't been a painter, he would have been a filmmaker and would have told stories where black people are represented as humans, and no longer in a negative way.

The title of the table Toxic would thus carry several meanings. It designates both the main subject (Torrick “ Toxic ” Ablack), but also the relationship it has with popular culture, and animation in this case.

J failed to mention that the Toxic characterhas his arms in the air and his hands reddened. Could it be that this toxic relationship got her hands dirty? Specifically that the character, because the cartoon has continually portrayed black people in pejorative ways, is now portrayed as a criminal? His position indeed indicates that he seems to be under arrest.

This hypothesis is very likely since Basquiat produced several works denouncing police brutality against African Americans, including The Death of Michael Stewart (Defacement) (1983).

Basquiat died prematurely in 1988, at the age of 27. Other artists from the black community, such as Montreal painters Kezna Dalz alias Teenadult, Manuel Mathieu, and animation filmmaker Martine Chartrand have, in their own way, taken up his fight and continue to fight for greater visibility of people. black women in the arts.

John Harbour, Doctoral student in literature and performing and screen arts (concentration in cinema), Laval University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Basquiat, Artist Advocate for African American Communities

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