It’s Black History Month in North America, so we’re reflecting on the momentous obstacles faced by a community whose struggles persist today. Defying convention, figures like Basquiat rewrote the narrative of not only what it meant to be a professional visual artist, but also a black visual artist. Through his paintbrush, Basquiat sought to protest against the historical and cultural discrimination that attempted to define him. The provocative enfant terrible of the 1980s became a pioneer of Neo-Expressionism, due to his beginnings as a member of graffiti duo, SAMO (same old shit).
In honour of the world-renowned painter, here are five facts you didn’t know about Basquiat.
1. He was extremely intelligent
Not only did he possess an unparalleled creative outlook, but he was also a child prodigy. Following a car accident at the age of seven, Basquiat was bed-bound for weeks where he found solace in reading. The young artist devoured complex literature like Gray’s Anatomy, where the anatomical illustrations inspired his art and creative process. He was also an avid fan of museums, becoming a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum at the tender age of six, and by the age of eleven he had achieved fluency in French, Spanish and English.
Daniele Fratini, Jean Michel-Basquiat
2. The crown motif has a vital meaning
The crown serves as not only an ostentatious accessory for his subjects, but it is specifically worn by black figures in his works. This signature crown seeks to defy Western culture and the predominately white world of visual arts, assigning royalty to the disenfranchised artists of colour. Basquiat’s friend, Francesco Clemente described the Basquiat crown as having “Three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion.”
Davide Murabito, Abstract Lusso
3. Debby Harry bought his first painting
Debby Harry and her boyfriend Chris Stein bought Basquiat’s first painting for $200, and he went on to appear in the music video for Blondie’s 1980 song, Rapture. His works were also bought by Madonna (briefly his partner), and later by Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.
Francesco Ottobre, Omaggio A Basquiat
4. He didn’t believe in banks
Basquiat’s refusal to open a bank account in the early 80s meant he hid his money in his loft room, disguising it in books, under rugs and between cushions. After an art show in Italy, Basquiat was paid $100,000 in cash, which he attempted to hide in his clothing and shoes when travelling back to America. Unfortunately the money began falling out at the airport, raising suspicions that he was involved in contraband activity or drug dealing. After numerous intense interrogations, Basquiat was able to prove his identity, but in order to take his money out of the country he had to wire it to a bank in Switzerland.
Jeg, Post Materialism Point of View
5. His painting sold for $110 million in 2017
In 2017, Basquiat’s work Untitled sold for $110m at Sotheby’s in New York. Basquiat’s work is not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but it isn’t intended to be. Although critics will regard the absence of grace as the main downfall of Basquiat’s art, it is exactly the purpose of his works. Basquiat’s guileless skull intends to evoke the suffering and innocence of a young black man neglected by a racist society; not to brighten the walls of an art gallery or celebrity home.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982), Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.
Like art, revolutions also began in the streets where the urban backdrop provided the means to unite individuals and voice their desires for change. Over time, however, artistic expression has become increasingly restricted where prestigious art schools, opulent galleries and extravagant auctions are reserved for the privileged. This is why Basquiat’s presence is so important to artists of colour: it is not highfalutin, it is accessible by all and, as a result, has left a considerable crown-shaped mark on the often alienating art world.
Create a Basquiat-inspired portrait!