Sport was an importance source of inspiration for Basquiat. You’ll be able to spot a few references to sports iconography and sportsmanship within his work, from boxing to baseball. Figures from black sporting history, particularly boxing, were a recurring theme for Basquiat, who watched important fights from a young age.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jack Johnson, 1982
Jack Johnson was the first African American world heavyweight champion. You’ll notice that the canvas has been draped and fixed to an industrial pallet – like a shrine to the boxer.
It’s a simple portrait – his arm raised in a moment of triumph. Or possibly a gesture to the raised fist of the Black Power movement. The crown above his head is a symbol you’ll see in many of Basquiat’s works and acts like the regal titles given to the distinguished jazz musicians such as ‘Duke’ Ellington.
Basquiat may well have been interested in Johnson’s complex personal life: he dealt with significant racial prejudice and was often profiled in the media for his relationships with white women.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jesse, 1983
Jesse relates to Jesse Owens, the black athlete who won four gold models in the 1936 Olympics. His name features alongside two Nazi swastikas, referencing the Berlin setting of the games, which Hitler saw as an opportunity to promote his concept of racial supremacy. Owens thwarted this idea by setting extraordinary world records.
This idea of supernatural talent is also seen on the multiple allusions to Superman characters, including ‘PERRY WHITE’ and ‘JIMMY OLSEN’. These act as a reminder of the anti-Nazi sentiments of the Jewish originators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose character first appeared in Action Comics in June 1938, two years after the Olympics and a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The fist at the top of the painting links Owen’s courage to that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 200m runners who raised their gloved fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.
We’ll be exploring more of Basquiat’s work throughout the exhibition – read more in our Basquiat collection: barbican.org.uk/explorebasquiat
Basquiat: Boom For Real takes place from 21 September–28 January 2018
Photo: ©Marcus J Leith