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Jean-Michel Basquiat, #BlackLivesMatter, “It Could Have Been Me” and Activism as Art for and by Bla

May 4th, 2015     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

Jean-Michel Basquiat Obnoxious Liberals 1982 Acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on canvas 172.72 x 259.08 cm The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2014) Licensed by Artestar, New York


Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was a famous artist from New York City (NYC) in the early 1980’s. He was a young, Black man, who started spray painting graffiti in his teens and early 20s, and later moved on to create huge and complex paintings. His art is now critically acclaimed, referenced in Jay-Z songs, and there is no doubt that Basquiat was a force that left an undeniable legacy in the art world in so many ways. As an artist, Basquiat broke through the white dominated art world in NYC with his work bringing up racism, class, gender, capitalism and commercialism, and police brutality, to name a few topics Basquiat incorporated into his art. His work is inherently political - as all art is - and Basquiat was very aware of the contradictions between his own self-actualization and how others saw him.

On February 5, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) hosted a First Thursdays event that coincided with the opening week of the tremendous Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit, “Now’s The Time”. First Thursdays is a relatively new event the AGO is hosting and as the title suggests is usually on the First Thursday of every month, and it usually entails some live music/DJ sets, panels or speakers, and interactive art exhibits. This past February’s First Thursday was especially exceptional, with the panel, “It Could Have Been Me: Perspectives On the Fight For Racial Justice and The Legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat”. The panel was organized by the Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition, and moderated by the brilliant Kim Katrin Milan. The panellists were Toronto based, young, Black artists and activists: Randell Adjei (artist and educator), janaya (j) khan (social justice educator), Mustafa Ahmed (a.k.a. Mustafa the Poet) and artist/activist Syrus Marcus Ware.

Opening remarks were made by Alexandria Williams, from the Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition, who opened night by discussing Basquiat’s influence, and noting that “recognizing the potency of Basquiat’s art provides a moment of remembrance for those who cannot sit in here with us…he might have been the one saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times while being choked by a white police officer.”

Movements like Black Lives Matter that have emerged out of the U.S., are urgently necessary and doing vital and admirable work, especially considering the long existing climate of police and state violence in racialized, specifically Black communities in the U.S., but also in Canada. This state violence is seen in one of Basquiat’s works, Defacement [The Death of Michael Stewart] (1983), which spoke to his fears and how deeply unnerved he was by a friend and fellow Black artist, Michael Stewart, being murdered by police in 1983. We’re living in dire circumstances, and not just in the U.S. - janaya mentioned that Black people make up nearly 10% of Canada’s federal prison populations, but less than 3% of Canadian society. The Black inmate population in federal, maximum-security institutions has grown by nearly 90% since 2003, according to a report done by Canada’s correctional watchdog. Anyone who says Canada is doing better than the U.S. needs to reevaluate some things. And, this over-representation of Black people in prison systems is just one aspect of how Canada’s institutions are continuing to marginalize Black people.

Jermaine Carby, a man from Brampton, was killed by a police officer last year in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). There were similar conversations happening about his murder that are happening in the U.S., such as that he had a criminal record, but last time I checked, that’s the same horrible discourse used to justify murder, when white people can get taken into police custody alive. Toronto is also facing substantial issues when it comes to racial profiling and the Toronto Police Services practice of carding. Desmond Cole, a very talented Toronto writer and radio host, recently wrote candidly and heartbreakingly about his dozens of experiences being stopped and carded by police across Ontario. Cole has defined carding in another article of his, as the practice of police stopping people in public spaces who are not suspected of committing a crime, but recording their personal information in a dark vortex of police data, “just in case”. The “just in case” being walking and being Black in Toronto as justification enough, as Black people make up 27% of all people stopped and carded in Toronto. These are just a few ways that systemic racism affects people in horribly invasive and life threatening ways.

Racism is so deeply entrenched in how we think and in how our world operates, but there is always resistance. Art is a particularly important way of resisting, because art can be a reflection of reality and lived experiences, but also a way to imagine what the future can look like.

Kim opened the panel with a quote by Basquiat: “I don’t think about art when I’m working, I try to think about life”, and she asked, “How do your politics show up in your art?” Below are the responses from the panelists.

Mustafa: “I think art is reflective of everything that surrounds me – it started with me being in my inner city community … everything I saw regarding seeing stuff in my community, regarding police brutality, internal destruction of our community, systemic racism, and for everyone in our community, there was something that needed to be relieved and I used that art form [poetry] to express that.”

Randell: “For me, my art is my lived experiences of being an African-Canadian male, and having experienced the challenges of navigating different spaces… We’re all facing some form of oppression, I try to connect with people; I try to connect as much as possible, to let people know we’re not alone, that through art we can create spaces where each and everyone of us can feel like we’re heard or represented in some shape or form.”

janaya: “My art is activism, and when I do activist work I am living my politic. I think the concept of art is loaded in so many ways, I see all of these black youth, and looking at it through the lens of queer and trans identities, and different levels of abilities, and access. Here we are celebrating Basquiat’s work and I don’t know one Black person in my life who can ever afford to own it.”

Syrus: “My work is entirely about the fight for self-determination for all people. The work I do is about celebrating the lives of people who are the most marginalized… I do portraits of Marsha P. Johnson, who was a contemporary of Basquiat, and experienced extreme violence, and like many trans women of colour (TWOC) we don’t get to live to be elders…to me, creating representations of our lives is about activism, and I think one of the things that are really important is sustainability and survival… We need creative responses as we’re already in a moment of liberation and freedom; creativity is essential in being able to imagine that.”

In Canada, conversations about racism are complicated due to the Canadian myth of it not being as bad as the U.S., when those sentiments of Canada being post-racial dismisses the very tangible reality of subtle and overt racism in Canada.

Moreover, conversations about racism in Canada is “only less vocal depending on who’s speaking… in Canada there’s this idea that we’re not talking about it, but in my family, my community, we talk about race and white supremacy every day”, Syrus said. He later went on to stress the importance to talking to kids from a really early age about racism and white supremacy to give them some semblance of reality and drive for change when they grow up.

As janaya said, “Black Lives Matter isn’t just about life, it’s about quality of life.” It is also about celebrating and centralizing all Black people’s lives, art, and activism before we mourn them. It is about ending police brutality. It is about ending systemic racism and legacies of colonization that plague Canada still. It is about white people, and people with other privileged identities being accountable.

The thing about Basquiat, and this panel in particular, is that they cultivate spaces to talk about tragic and horrific systemic violence and imagining a safer future inextricably. I am so proud to be young, and surrounded by so many incredible young artists and activists who are critically optimistic. I feel like everyday we are getting smarter, better, more intersectional in our work, more critical, more loving, and acknowledging that we’ll never know everything. We must always continue to learn and unlearn in order to create meaningful art and social change. For me, it’s learning to stop talking often in spaces that do not and should not belong to me. It’s about transforming unsafe white spaces into spaces that acknowledge and refuse to be complicit in white supremacy.

A link that streams the panel in its glorious entirety can be found here.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s exhibit, Now’s the Time__, is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 10, and if you can, it is truly an exhibit not to be missed. The AGO is hosting a closing party on Saturday, May 9.

Tags: art, politics, race, violence, youth

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