The Barbican is currently hosting the first comprehensive exhibition of works by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Together with Grayson Perry’s ‘The most popular art exhibition ever!’ at the Serpentine Gallery, BOOM FOR REAL left a deep impression on me. I was blown away.
Whilst I found it moving, nostalgic and melancholic, some of my friends were more taken by the underlining racial tension, social criticism and pointy sarcasm.
It is not difficult to understand why, though it is not immediately apparent.
Licensing the images of his works to many popular fashion brands, Forever 21 and Reebok to name a few, and using them on so much diverse merchandise has made them instantly recognisable.
The various films projected throughout the gallery all show a smiling, beautiful and, most of all, untroubled artist.
They lull us into an even deeper sense of ease and familiarity. And so do the polaroids and photographs of his circle of friends. Posing and partying.
Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Madonna are household names for anyone who was around in the 80s.
In short, it is a massive trip down memory lane. And a happy one too.
I fully bought it, until I was made to engage my brain.
Basquiat met Andy Warhol when he was 19. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship which lasted until 1985.
Some people think Basquiat used Warhol to validate his own art, some that Warhol looked for a way to remain relevant at a time when his popularity was diminishing.
Though many speculated about the motives behind the unlikely bromance, the two formed a very close personal and professional connection. When Warhol died in February 1987, the tragedy affected Basquiat’s health and state of mind, sending him into a downward spiral of isolation, depression and drug abuse.
Dos Cabezas, delivered to Warhol still dripping with wet paint, is one of my favourite pieces. It marks the start of their incredible partnership.
After spending an inordinate amount of time in front of it, we re-grouped and talked. Something was out of kilter.
The problem with this exhibition partly lies in the simplistic, almost bi-dimensional, portrait of an ever smiling and dancing Basquiat.
This exhibition is inherently biographical, yet glosses over fundamental aspects of his life.
There is no mention of his struggle to challenge the stereotyped image of black men – boxer, gang member, basketball player – and the price paid to fit in with this image – an incomplete and fragmented identity.
In his paintings black people are either broken, defective or sketched like a stick, their face like a skull, their limbs astray. They are not allowed an all-round existence.
They only aspire to that level of power and success. His iconic golden crown often hovers above their head, without actually touching it.
There is no spotlight on the racism he experienced in his everyday life or his troubled relation with the art world, from his struggle to be accepted and appreciated to his fraught relation with so many galleries.
Beside the insight offered by the writings on his paintings and his own notebooks, the best introduction to this solo show is to be found outside, on the walls of the Barbican centre.
Banksy created two murals inspired by the forthcoming exhibition. On Instagram posts, he captioned them ‘Major new Basquiat show opens at the Barbican – a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls’ and ‘Portrait of Basquiat being welcomed by the Metropolitan police – an (unofficial) collaboration with the new Basquiat show’.
Basquiat died aged only 27. Next month he would have been 57. This show leaves us in awe of his work and wondering what he would have achieved given a longer time. What would he make of President Trump?
‘Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican until 28/01/2018.