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The Sound of Basquiat


Written by Lucy Maguire
22 Wednesday 22nd November 2017

I know there's not many of you out there but if you haven't already braved the cloakroom queue and checked out the Basquiat: Boom For Real exhibition at the Barbican, you should. This is not one of those occasions when word of mouth spreads like wildfire to get you into a space, but you find yourself bored and dehydrated wandering the halls. There is a narrative to this show, a sound to it, and most importantly an extremely powerful message for 2017.


One of the many talks taking place during the exhibitions run, Bebop and the beats: Basquiat and music took place last week. The influence of jazz, hip hop and rock on the late artist is palpable as you explore each era of his work, the first sign is heard in the echoes emanating from Downtown '81, the fictional film made by his friend, in which Jean-Michel plays a version of himself, down, out and painting against the backdrop of post-punk Manhattan. He never painted without music, and did produce his own as part of the post-punk noise rock band Gray (heard in the Downtown '81 soundtrack), before delving into beat poetry in later years.


Music is painted into his works, be it in written form, or in portrait: Basquiat makes heavy reference to idols such as bebop saxman Charlie Parker (most notably in 'CPRKR', 'Bird on Money' and 'Charles The First'). Other jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong are immortalised in 'King Zulu', inspired by Armstrong's balaclava clad appearance at Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1949; an interesting commentary on the significance of race that shines through Jean-Michel's archive. It's clear Basquiat felt aligned with these icons, as a black man trying to make waves in a white dominated industry, and world. Race is a constant, with both subtle and blatant references that weave together his criticism of our society – a criticism that still rings true today. With his wonderful re-interpretation of Warhol's Arm and Hammer logo in their collaboration 'Arm and Hammer II'. Charlie Parker is re-imagined as the centre piece, with 'L I B E R T Y' brandished above his head, it's a powerful contrast to the logo for an 'all American' 'extreme white' toothpaste brand that Warhol initially provided.


Although, it is not just black musicians that Jean-Michel Basquiat chose to champion. His depictions of sportsmen such as Hank Aaron, referenced throughout his work, take pride of place in this exhibition. Aaron, as a black baseball player and activist, is a pseudonym littered through the works, and brandished across the helmet now synonymous with Basquiat's London image, after its extensive use in the marketing. As poignant now as they were when he painted them, images of black fists raised in the air in 'Jesse', after four time Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens who won at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, fly in the face of white supremacy of the time, and inspire activism in the observer today. This provides echoes of the recent NFL ‘take the knee’ controversy in America, and sadly reminds us that for the black artist, the black musician, and the black sportsperson - Basquiat's battle is far from won. 


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