A little while ago, I wrote a piece for The Rumpus about a recently republished book about the life of Jean Michel Basquiat. The timing of the book’s re-release coincided with a major exhibition of the artist’s works at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. That exhibition opened to the public today, rung in with a kick-off party on Thursday, headlined by Grandmaster Flash. The city’s been waiting for this event like a shy teenager waits for prom after the most popular boy in school asks her. And we weren’t disappointed.
Basquiat was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century and his legacy is more than visual art. His work challenges perceptions about race and class and this exhibition is prescient at a time of heightened tensions after repeated incidents of police violence against minorities in North American. Basquiat deals with police brutality in his work, and with the status of the black male. To highlight these themes the exhibition weaves in audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, video of street artists, and includes narration from black academics, artists, and poets.
The overall effect of almost 85 artworks and the expert curation is striking. Laid out over a huge space and hung on bare white walls you can see every hastily nailed-together canvas frame, every dirty footprint where someone trod on a canvas when it lay discarded on the floor of Basquiat’s New York apartment. I was sad when it was over and I can’t wait to experience it again (I’m bringing my husband next weekend as my Valentine’s date).
If you’re not near Toronto (good for you, it’s freezing here) or if you’re also going a week between visits to Basquiat, here are some suggestions for how you can fill your time.
Hustle and Flow, the film that brought us Terrence Howard before he was the Empire patriarch, is now on Netflix. It’s the story of a pimp trying to make it big as a hip hop artist. A different black America than the one Basquiat paints but equally real and worthy of artistic interpretation.
Can’t stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, a methodical accounting of the early world of hip hop in New York. So richly detailed and a great primer on many of the characters you’ll encounter in Basquiat’s work. Chang’s take on the birth of hip hop is almost academic and it’s the best accounting of the social and artistic context that gave rise to the musical style that I’ve ever seen.
Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement is something we’ve already talked about at length but I can’t recommend it enough.
Lastly, in news that suggests Hollywood is finally doing the right thing and making television shows that speak only to my particular set of interests, Netflix has just announced that it is producing a program from Baz Luhrman about the early days of hip hop in New York so you may never hear from me again because I just died.
UNRELATED NOTE: There were lots of parents who brought their kids to the exhibition, much more than you usually see at the gallery. One father had three kids, all under the age of ten, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Basquiat and his influences. He told his kids of sports heroes and musical legends that appeared in the works, he talked in language children would understand about the importance of Basquiat as a black figure and mirrored inspirations for the works with current events. Guys, he referenced the MLK speeches that his kids had watched on YouTube with him. If the Baz Luhrnman news hadn’t already killed me, I would have died.