In a photograph taken in 1984 at his studio in Venice, California, Jean-Michel Basquiat is recorded at work on Gold Griot. On the left of the photograph is M, also painted in 1984. The griot is a primarily West-African singer and storyteller, a repository of tradition, history and knowledge, and the imposing figure in M too appears to share some of its characteristics, yet here they are blended with the necklaces and ornamentation of the Masai warrior. The features are articulated by electric, expressionistic flashes of color that suggest some intense internal energy, hinting that this character is in communion with some deeper power.
Race had always been a concern for Basquiat, one that was often forced upon him by the discrimination, both deliberate and accidental, that surrounded him. Even among his friends in the artistic elite, he was acutely aware of the thin line between appreciation and exploitation. All too often he felt that his success with them depended on token efforts, on novelty, on subservience to the establishment that placed him in the position of slave to his paymasters, and he explored this in many of his paintings by creating a varied pantheon of black characters, exploring their history and their heritage. Basquiat was also doing his part to right an imbalance: 'I realized I never saw any paintings with black people in them' (Basquiat, quoted in R. Knapo, The Basquiat File, at http://www.spikemagazine.com/0397basq.php). In 1984 a new figure became increasingly predominant within his work, that of the dignified African, as in M. This is no longer Charlie Parker or Joe Louis, no martyr to the Jim Crow laws or to other forms of discrimination. Instead, Basquiat has found a new sort of black hero, one that has inherent dignity. In M, the anger and vitriol of some of Basquiat's other works has been replaced by a celebration of his ancient heritage as an artist of African descent.
Basquiat was all too aware of the lazy assumptions made by the West as to African culture at the time, and here refutes them by presenting a figure who, in traditional dress, belies those views and instead represents the living continuation of an ancient and venerable culture. By identifying himself with his distant African roots, Basquiat was able to find a new, fresh and dignified image of the black male, rather than the stereotypical views that plagued New York, and therefore plagued him. Most of Basquiat's paintings can be seen as some manner of self-portrait, and so here he has presented himself not as an artist or a man struggling against his condition but instead as a noble warrior, an enlightened and shamanic figure.
Basquiat was actively creating an art and an iconography that was not only about his African heritage, but was also intended for it. He was trying to create a viable art, a counterpoint to the dominant Western tradition that had stifled so much African-American expression for so long. In Robert Knapo's article, he recalls that Basquiat felt that he had to an extent abandoned the influences of Dubuffet, Twombly and Picasso of his earlier paintings. By 1984, his skills had developed in leaps and bounds--he had gained confidence and maturity and had honed his powers of expression: 'Every line means something. And there are things I know now, things that have become important to me. I'm interested in painting the black person. He's the protagonist in most of my paintings' (Basquiat, quoted in Knapo, op.cit.). In M, this restrained use of line is clearly visible. Basquiat has packed a strong visual punch, contrasting the black figure against the paleness of the rough wooden support. There is little extraneous detail to distract us from this portrait of a hero, a figure of reverence. Basquiat's M is an archetype, not a stereotype. This is an example, something to be proud of and aspire to. This painting is therefore a concentration of Basquiat's self-stated interests: 'Royalty, heroes and the streets' (Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, 'Art: from subways to Soho: Jean Michel Basquiat', pp. 18-26, Jean Michel Basquiat: Gemëlde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh.cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 23).
In some ways, with this sense of artistic duty and vocation, Basquiat had come to see himself as a manner of griot. He was a new, young, ultra-modern link in a chain of African culture that stretched across the Atlantic and back through the millennia. He was the scion of a noble tradition, invigorating it and filling it with a fresh currency. The deliberate 'primitivism' with which he has painted M shows Basquiat uniting the raw energy of the street art that he had made during his youth with the ancient and hallowed tradition of African art. It is filled with the energy of graffiti, with the sense of spontaneity and rebellion, and this is highlighted by the detritus-like appearance of the wooden support, which resembles a found object or even scrap. M appears to have been painted on a tall wooden fence, adding to the sense of protest and rawness. At the same time, M clearly recalls the African painting and culture that was becoming more and more of an influence on the artist during this period. Even the colors that have been used to highlight the various features of the face recall the colors often associated with African traditions of ornamentation. They also pulse with a distinctly modern energy that appears to recall the special effects in Disney's 1982 science fiction film, Tron. These intense and almost hallucinogenic lines of electric color are as much the product of the lights of Times Square and Broadway as they are of Africa, Basquiat placing his new African hero, this secular deity for a new age, in a modern context and in a modern style.