The AGO Has a Jean Michael Basquiat Exhibition and You Should Go:
I didn’t have any plans to leave the country this break, but going to the AGO’s ‘Now is the Time’ Basquiat exhibition felt like I left the earth in all honesty. Jean Michael Basquiat was a New York artist in the eighties who created abstract expressionist pieces, which resonate with me and plenty of others to this day. I think the two most poignant quotes that I kept in my head while roaming the beautifully displayed exhibition was “I am not a black artist, I am an artist,” and “believe it or not, I can actually draw.”
In terms of the first quote, race is inexplicably tied to Basquiat’s creations as an artist. He was one of the few faces in art to be a black person, and to be at the forefront. His art provides narratives that were, and are too easily, and quickly ignored. That’s personally why I got emotional looking at some of the rawness of the pieces the AGO acquired for display. One of my favourites ‘Defacement (Death of Michael Stewart)’ who was a friend of Jean Michael and a graffiti artist who got arrested for spray painting, and then later died under police custody due to alleged brutality. Basquait presented this by portraying his friend being beaten for fucking defacing a wall. Basquait’s art to me often shows things and scenes in their most stripped down, and ‘primative’ form. His art is so powerful I believe because it’s something that transcends the idea of generations. His message is still alive, and well today, and that’s why I think going to this exhibit is so important – I can’t stress this enough.
Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) by Jean Michael Basquiat
Something else to note about the showing is the aura. It really felt like you entered a new space when you went inside to the exhibit. It felt like we were going to see a god and in some ways you really did. I have to commend the AGO once more for their ability to get such a diverse range of pieces in for this exhibition. I truly felt like I got a full scope of his work from early sketches to some of his grander painting masterpieces.
The weirdest experience out of this I probably had was my in-depth conversation with man who I’m going to assume is in his sixties. It started with him questioning my thoughts on the exhibit and led into race and class in Basquiat’s work, into western African culture into the life story of author James Baldwin. It was really strange, but somehow just fit. He actually put me onto a potentially good number of books, so shout out to that old man.
If you’re aware of Basquiat’s story he died of an overdose at the age of 27. For some reason, that fact just resonates with me. It makes me sad to think when I look at all of his greatness. This isn’t an anti drug PSA, I advocate doing what you like within safe means, but just knowing heroin won the battle over Basquiat when they fought, hurt.
I wish I had something concluding to really wrap this up, but I can’t really say anything. The stories of Jean Michael Basquiat’s art transcends time. He was able to bring the black face to the art protagonist. He did that. All I can say is I’m sad to see the circumstances that he had to do it in. If I have child, I wouldn’t want them to be able to understand ‘The Irony of the Negro Policeman’ on sight, I don’t want them relate to ‘Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)’.
Self Portrait by Jean Michael Basquiat
Enoch Ncube, Online Contributor