We chatted to some of the artists who will be collaborating at nitroBEAT’s next Pit Party to ask how pioneering New York based artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has inspired them as an artist.
As an artist who grew up alongside the likes of Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja (Massive Attack) during the 80s at the epicentre of Bristol’s creative melting pot, I feel blessed to have been introduced to Basquiat’s existence courtesy of The Face Magazine (R.I.P), which prompted me to go to his UK debut exhibition at The ICA. Whilst Bob and Marcia’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’ alongside Bob Marley and Muhammed Ali installed pride of my black skin and Jamaican heritage in me, Basquiat confirmed my existence as an artist.
Seeing someone who looked like me being intuitively creative whilst provocative in his wordplay and shedding light on black histories was a revelation. To this day it gives me the strength to continue broadcasting by any medium necessary whilst asking blunt, relevant and meaningful questions that tackle human suffrage, racism, gender exploitation, injustice, control and the hypernormalisation of humanity.
‘His ideas feel real’
Like Basquiat, I too was heavily influenced by a book. For him it was the famous Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother when he was in hospital after being in an accident. This book would become a profound influence Basquiat throughout much of his work. The book that influenced me was Mildred D.Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Seemingly voiceless, strong women like Cassie Logan feature heavily in my writing.
What I take from Basquiat’s work is to bring to the forefront the richness and complexities of the black voice. Voices that can in some communities and parts of the world, be stifled, but knowing underneath that there is a strength. This is what has drawn me to Basquiat and his influence continues to highlight the power and strength of black culture.
He was a trailblazer and he was the first artist to upset the racial status quo in the Western art world. His ideas feel real.
Basquiat resonates with artists who feel marginalised, but not by being some kind of ‘voice of the people’ character. He resonates because he embodies and he addressed the conflict and struggle that comes with striving for success in amongst the elitist nature of the arts. And it really is a conflict; we look at Basquiat as one of the most influential artists of recent history who at the time was listed as ‘wild’. An idea like that diminishes the artist’s legacy and completely overlooks the genius of his work and the intelligence that he was very aware of in himself.
Basquiat’s art, to me, comes from a place of creative genius. The way the figures and text are exploded on to the canvas, it’s a whole other language of brilliant communication.
Heading off to art school I was full of ideas and heavily into street art and graffiti – a world that allowed me to experiment with colour, typography and illustration without constraint. Sadly, my first day didn’t go as planned due to my first lecturer snarling ‘that’s not art!’. It was clear from day one I didn’t fit into contemporary art school.
It wasn’t until I started doing photography that everything clicked (no pun intended!). There were less ‘rules’ with photography and I could experiment the way I did with graffiti. I began to explore art history, searching out artists that didn’t fit in with or play by established rules. It was around this time I discovered Basquiat.
Basquiat taught me that his chaotic (to some) way of working, taking influence from music, literature and history is my foundation.
‘Basquiat’s art, to me, comes from a place of creative genius’
Basquiat strikes me as someone who was deeply committed to their art and who protected it with a fierceness I find inspiring. As an artist that works across disciplines I’ve really struggled with my sense of identity. This feeling of not quite being part of any one world is also something reflected in my personal identity as a mixed race man living in England. He embodied this difficult sense of in-betweenness and used it as a means to transcend convention, freely creating beautiful artwork.
As a ‘small island’ black girl growing up in a West Midlands suburb I felt somewhat disconnected from the dominant black music and culture of Jamaica, so I turned instead to the US. The hip-hop scene that Jean-Michel Basquiat rose from had me hooked as New York shaped and influenced the youth cultures of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.
Basquiat made me feel normal in wanting to delve into the black experience, my reality and across invisible lines to draw from multiple sources of inspiration (old, new, black, white, high art, popular art & technology). I didn’t know back then that graffiti artists questioned the authenticity of his work, that black people accused him of selling out, and that the white art elite questioned his right to be there. It isn’t a stretch for me now however, to imagine how he might have struggled with the dichotomy of different worlds and the challenges of fitting in nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.
As I celebrate Basquiat’s success and undeniably incredible talent, it also reminds me why he and I felt/feel so connected to black music – because its innovation and evolution is less easy to constrain. There would be many more Basquiat’s if opportunities were fairly distributed. He was a chosen one, not the only one.
As an artist, a musician and a theatre maker I connect strongly to Basquiat’s anger, his frustration with the historical lines drawn across current society, his sense of rage and rebellion. I started my own art – initially as a performer, an actor, a rapper a DJ – and was informed by my environment, the streets of East London. I fell in love with hip-hop and its associated cultural forms including graffiti. Through hip-hop I fell in love with New York, Jazz, Harlem, Brooklyn, Long Island, the Bronx and the streets Jean-Michel grew up around.
nitroBEAT Pit Party: Suckerpunch Boom Suite takes place 29–30 Sep in The Pit.
Basquiat: Boom for Real is on until 28 Jan 2018 at Barbican.