Recently I was invited to the Barbican’s Basquiat retrospective Boom for Real. The first large scale exhibition since 1996, this show promises to be seminal.
The paintings are stunning and show Basquiat’s deep painterly skill quite clearly. I challenge anyone to go and not be deeply moved and transformed. The curators at the Barbican have contextualised Basquiat in the downtown art scene, the rich art world and within his own intellectual engagement with culture, art, music and literature.
The exhibition fails however to discuss Basquiat’s engagement with both his own blackness and his reading of African History. Let alone the wider social issues, Basquiat would have experienced in 80s New York.
One painting “Jawbone of an ass” shows a list of names. The caption says that this list of authors reflects Basquiat’s reading, as if Basquiat read a list of names and put them on his painting to joosh it up. Yet a closer reading will show that several of these figures are seminal figures in ancient Africa and European engagement with ancient African civilisations: Joseph, Alexander, Sappho, Scipio, Hannibal, Hypatia, Cleopatra, et al.
The collage effect of the painting leaves a lacuna between the ancient period and the modern experience of America. This suggests a broken continuum in the lived experience. In the bottom right hand corner, two boxers are portrayed. The muted colour scheme of (mostly) Green, Orange and Black suggests the pan-African flag of Marcus Garvey. So much could be read into this painting.
The curators’ caption merely says that Anaxagoras and Virgil were philosophers. It ignores the list of African notables, including two powerful strong African women (from a period of history in which women’s voices were routinely silenced).
This may possibly reflect a lack of knowledge of ancient literature. Another caption in the same room identifies Ishtar as the Egyptian goddess of love. Admittedly the ethnicity of ancient Africans (especially Graeco-Roman Egyptians) is a complicated subject, but to completely ignore this element of the painting is hard to justify.
Such captions reflect the lack of black voices in the exhibition. Whether due to ignorance or micro-aggressions, it is disappointing. Basquiat deserves better, as do the many people who will come to see this collection of powerful paintings.
My advice is go to the exhibition several times, but avoid where possible the curators’ captions.