Heroes of history
Acrylic and oil on linen, 193 x 239 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Licensed by Artestar, New York
Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
"Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix. . . . I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous." —Jean-Michel Basquiat (1)
From the beginning of his artistic career, Jean-Michel Basquiat (b. 1960, New York; d. 1988, New York) decided that one of the key themes of his work would be the black man. (2) Born of a Haitian father and a mother of Puerto Rican descent, he was fully aware of racial differences in everyday life in New York City. His interest in African American history led him to explore themes related to colonialism and slavery in his art.
Basquiat observed how important black personalities from the fields of sports, music, and literature were rendered oblivious in history. For Basquiat, all of them, whether famous or anonymous, were great heroes who deserved to claim the honor that history had denied them. (3) He felt he shared that reality, for despite being a famous and well-off painter, it was still difficult to accomplish normal tasks like hailing a taxi. (4)
To commemorate these forgotten heroes and provide visibility for the African diaspora in the history of art, Basquiat painted portraits of black musicians and sports players, including boxers. Untitled (1982) shows an anonymous black boxer celebrating a victory over the white man. The figure is raising his arms in a victorious gesture. For Basquiat, boxing matches transcended the ring to become a symbol of the race war between blacks and whites. (5)
The boxer’s head is crowned by a halo, a symbol that suggests saintliness. The face is covered by a mask, which could evoke a gas mask or the hood of a rapper. Basquiat’s figures may appear comical at first, but closer observation shows these heroes adopt many forms, rejecting conventional norms and behavior. Basquiat tries to honor the black man with images of this kind while at the same time denouncing modern-day repression, exploitation, and slavery. (6)
1. Cathleen McGuigan, “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of An American Artist,” The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 29.
2. Richard D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Enrico Navarra, ed. (Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996), p. 44.
3. Magdalyn Asimakis, curatorial statement for Now’s the Time, Art Gallery of Ontario.
4. Dieter Buchhart, ed., Now’s the Time, exh. cat. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Munich, London, and New York: DelMonico Books, Prestel Publications; Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015), p. 15.
6 Ibid., pp. 15–16.
Show: Untitled (1982)
Carefully describe this work.
Describe the character in the picture. Who could it be? How would your students describe his face and clothes?
Observe and describe the objects and brushstrokes that surround the figure. What could they represent?
Describe the colors used in the painting. What sensations do these colors seem to transmit?
Imitate the posture adopted by the character in the painting. What could he be doing? Ask your students to suggest what might happen next.
Basquiat admired black sports players. Why do you think he was interested in boxers?
What might be the reason for placing a halo on the figure’s head?