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?
Just like Basquiat uses forgotten heroes to learn about and honor his culture and history, ask students to search for information on important but not very well-known figures in the history of their town, city, or country. The search can focus on sports, music, literature, entertainment, or any field of interest to your students. Compile data on the hero’s achievements.
The students can work individually or in groups. Once research is complete, ask them to write a short essay explaining the figure’s importance.
Find a photograph of the chosen figure and use it to paint his or her portrait. Encourage students to express the main features of the figure’s personality in their paintings.
Ask them about personal heroes and the reasons a hero may be forgotten.
A hero for the school
Basquiat often drew inspiration from the heroes of comic strips and children’s book illustrations to represent heroes who would denounce social injustices and help their victims overcome them.
Ask students to make a list of the problems or types of injustice that can prevent communal life at school from running smoothly.
Bearing in mind the needs you have identified, ask each student to invent an individual superhero who might help improve school life. Ask them to first define the hero’s characteristics: character, skills, physique, etc. Draw a series of symbolic objects to accompany the hero. There can be magical or everyday elements forming part of the character. Give your hero a name.
Using acrylic or tempera paints, try to apply the paint and colors in a manner that suggests the sensations they want to convey (displeasure, rage, love, etc.).
Hold a group discussion on the possibility of finding a living/contemporary hero in the school who would be similar to the one they have invented. Ask students to try to agree on a definition of the word hero. Do they think that anyone of them could become a school hero? Ask them to reflect on ways in which each of them could help to improve communal life at school.
A critical cartoon
When Basquiat was a child, he wanted to draw cartoons. Many of his later works showed figures inspired by the drawings of his favorite comics, and his pictures were filled with symbols that denounced social injustice.
This work addresses confrontations between different races. Slavery and colonialism are two phenomena related to racism. Talk to your students about the historical consequences of African slavery and colonialism and the reflexion in today’s society.
Divide students into groups and give them news related to social or political issues that demonstrate injustice. Read the news with them and set out the problems. Each group may create a critical cartoon to denounce the situation.
Colonialism: Political and economic dominion or control of one country over another.
Diaspora: Dispersal of human groups who abandon their place of origin.
Racism: Ideology that argues for the superiority of one race over the others and the need to keep it isolated or separate from the rest within a community or country.
Symbol: Representation of a thing or sensation through a sign. Often used to represent abstract ideas of a spiritual nature.
About the artist
About racism, colonialism, and new colonialism