My partner and I recently attended a screening of a new Basquiat documentary detailing his "early years". I initially thought Damn what more can they say about Basquiat? Also: What early years? Basquiat died young. Then I looked to see if the director was white. I usually do this when history is being told. Perspective is everything. and yes, she was. White people can't help themselves and I was irritated but my curiosity and me and my partner's love of Jean-Michel Basquiat made me buy two tickets to the screening. I wanted to see what it was all about.
The screening was at IFC in the West Village and the audience was mostly white. we sat right in the center and almost immediately after choosing our seats, an older white lady behind me asked me if she could hang her jacket on my seat... her WET jacket on MY seat (it was raining outside). I firmly said no. Actually, I should've been more firm. SHE THEN HAD THE AUDACITY TO LOOK UPSET ABOUT IT. So I suggested she hang it on her own chair behind her because I'm too nice. SHE HAD THE NERVE TO TELL ME NO BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T WANT TO BOTHER THE PEOPLE BEHIND HER. But of course she thought it perfectly fine to inconvenience me. I kept my cool and proceeded to ignore her. We eventually chose other seats, not because of the old white lady's passive aggressive tantrum but because a old heavyset white man wearing a black trench coat with newspapers falling out of his briefcase (why he had a briefcase is beyond me but it was suspect) decided to sit next to me. He stank so bad. My partner said he smelled like "wet paper." I swear he smelled like hot garbage, the kind NYC starts smelling like on a random 80 degree day in March.
Where we eventually sat became the black section. It seemed as though all the interracial and black couples settled into our little section for whatever reason and if you glanced over your right shoulder it was hard not to cringe at the sea of white faces. To see Basquiat. Funny. Nevertheless we enjoyed viewing the documentary because we love Basquiat, his work, and the fact that he was Haitian and Puerto Rican (a mix of our prospective cultures) but the documentary did not add anything new to the basquiat dialogue.
The documentary was a combination of repetitive clips of basquiat doing random things (video projects he worked on while he was alive and dabbling in different mediums) and people's interview clips in which they detailed their supposed relationship with Basquiat (he was a "lady's man", we get it, how many times does it need to be said?). the "Lady's man" idea was really hit home, an undertone of oversexualization of Black men was present throughout the film. The documentary also touched on his ability to strike gold while still alive ("thank you" Mr. Warhol) without mentioning that was really rare was being a successful black artist so of course he needed to catch the attention and admiration of white people.
As I sat there and listened and watched the same ol' BS about Basquiat almost immediately after I realized that they never mentioned his Blackness once. Actually it WAS mentioned once BY THE ONLY BLACK WOMAN ON THE SCREEN who supposedly knew him well, and was the only one to speak of him as a role model for other Black boys yearning to create and be heard. How do you not mention the fact that he was a Black man in America, a BLACK ARTIST who often used Spanish and Haitian Creole words in his magnificent works of art? HOW DO YOU EVEN DOCUMENT BASQUIAT'S LIFE WITHOUT MENTIONING RACE? Leave it up to white people to pretend to be "color blind." Basquiat walking around in his beautiful brown skin and NOT ONE MENTION OF HIS ABILITY TO NAVIGATE, and eventually THRIVE in THIS VERY RACIST ART WORLD? Maybe that's what drove the man crazy, the racist passive aggression he was forced to endure. It's common knowledge that being an artist is hard, it's a hustle but if it's what emblazons your soul then it's worth it, at least that's what they say and POC know that being a BLACK artist, a person of color in the art world, is a hustle like no other, a fight few survive.
It's no wonder Basquiat died young.
After the screening was a Q&A with the director and a graffiti artist who knew Basquiat well, Lee Quinones. I stayed for Lee Quinones. My eager hand was blatantly ignored by the hipster host who seemed more fit to work at Urban Outfitters than being an interviewer so I marched over to Lee Quinones once the lame Q&A ended and asked me what I had been eager to ask the whole time and what not white person would care to ask.
"Did Basquiat really own his identity as Haitian and Puerto Rican or was that something that was forced on him because he was Black?"
Quinones thought for a bit and then tells me that Basquiat and him never spoke about being Puerto Rican. I find this odd and I'm not going to lie, I'm a bit taken back by it. Quinones really owns his Puerto Rican identity, just take one look at his social media, yet he says Basquiat and him never spoke about it. He then says that he knows Basquiat lived in Puerto Rico for awhile with his dad but that was before he knew him. I find it peculiar that Basquiat never talked about his Puerto Rican identity, a Black Puerto Rican at that, even though he had lived in Puerto Rico for awhile. It's strange but unsurprising. You often have to strip and separate yourself from your cultural identity to be able to gain access to white spaces, ESPECIALLY in the art world, it wasn't until later in his life as an artist that Basquiat began creating pieces adorned with Spanish and Haitian Creole words, or words like "Negro," a clear nod to his roots; a close study of the progression of his art might show a Basquiat developing into an artist more aware or unafraid of expressing his identity.
Quinones tells me that people definitely forced the label of "Black artist" onto him and that although Basquiat definitely endured racism throughout his career as an artist, he couldn't personally speak on it much because they never talked about it.
The interviewer in this video labels the art from Haiti as "primitive" and keeps forcing onto Basquiat the word "primitive" which Basquiat brushes off with the kind of joke that was typical of the artist. The interviewer passive aggressively attempts to find what fuels Basquiat's fire already having made the assumption that his Puerto Rican and Haitian background has everything to do with his style and his art. It's obvious his culture was used as a way to not understand him but to categorize and label his art, we still see this today among artists of color. I understand Basquiat's refusal to become a label, a whitewashed category in the art world. "Primitive" is the epitome of white Amerikkka.
It is CRYSTAL CLEAR that the art world WAS NOT COLOR BLIND. Basquiat was a Black artist, he was labeled as so, he was misunderstood and scrutinized because of that and yet here we are viewing a "new" documentary in 2018 about his life with almost no mention of his racial identity. Why? It is a part of his story. It is why he is a cultural phenomenon. HE DOMINATED THE ART WORLD, he was a resilient, bad ass rebel who seemingly did whatever the f--- he wanted; who lived, breathed, and died for his ability to freely express himself. Stop whitewashing him.