Between 2017 and 2018, Untitled featured in the Barbican Art Gallery’s celebrated retrospective Basquiat: Boom for Real. Eleanor Nairne, curator of the exhibition, discusses the work and its context.
Sometime in August or September 1984, Jean-Michel Basquiat made a haven of the workshop in the Institute of Contemporary Arts. His first institutional solo exhibition had opened at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh that summer and he travelled down to look at the galleries on the Mall ahead of the show opening in London in December.1 With some time to kill in the capital and thoughts about his British context rumbling, he got to work. He began by making a small number of vibrant oil-stick drawings, to be Xeroxed and pasted onto the background of a multi-paneled painting, Grillo, which we might translate from the Spanish as chain or shackle.
Look at the cultural landscape in London in the autumn of 1984: the Tate set out to demonstrate that George Stubbs was more than a mere horse painter; the Hayward presented an overview of Henri Matisse; and the Barbican sought to salvage the reputation of the society painter James Tissot. Despite courting international acclaim and exhibiting at museums as illustrious as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Basquiat was often written about by critics in the crudest of terms – either as an outsider to the mainstream white art world or as an insider masquerading as an outsider (note the frequent comparisons to Jean Dubuffet, godfather of Art Brut or so-called ‘outsider art’).2 On 18 December 1984 – four days after the ICA opening – Basquiat was described in The Guardian as ‘an educated and sophisticated practitioner of Dumb Painting who gives New York paparazzi a tasty helping of primitivism’.3
The smack of such a remark is crucial when looking at Untitled, which is covered in enigmatic symbols and words that we might think of as barbed rejoinders. ‘HALF NELSON’ appears most frequently, listed twice and then twice again and then nine times and then sixteen times, creating a mounting sense of urgency if you scan the page from left to right. The phrase is a reminder of the ICA’s proximity to Nelson’s Column and the topical question of who and what is commemorated by such national monuments. As Afua Hirsch has written recently, Horatio Nelson may be venerated by historians for his naval victories such as at the Battle of Trafalgar, but it should be remembered that he also used his considerable influence and seat in the House of Lords ‘to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends’.4
In case the connection is in any doubt, Basquiat places ‘BRITISH WEST INDIES’ twice in the centre of the page, once with the emphasis of a box and then with the accent of an orange line below; there are also eleven mentions of ‘SUGAR©’ to reinforce the connection to the sugarcane plantations. Perhaps then the ‘HALF’ should be read as an imperative – halve the 52-metre column and topple Nelson from his state of grace – spiced with a joke about the Admiral’s famously diminutive stature. Added to this is the wrestling move, ‘a Half Nelson’, in which an opponent is pinned from behind by a hand passed under their arm and held to the back of their neck – a fitting image for a trapped colonial subject or indeed a retaliating move against a colonial aggressor. Given Basquiat’s love of jazz, it is surely no coincidence that ‘Half Nelson’ is also a classic Bebop tune, written by Miles Davis and recorded in 1947 with Charlie Parker on tenor sax and Nelson Boyd on bass.
The use of such multivalent imagery is typical of Basquiat’s brilliant ability to tap into the consciousness of the Black Atlantic. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto-Rican mother (details he was sure to include on his Biography in 1983), he spoke French and Spanish from a young age and was well aware of the forced migration of his enslaved ancestors from Africa to the Caribbean. These histories became increasingly present in his work from 1983, when he read Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit on African and Afro-American art and philosophy. The book became a favourite and a key source for Untitled, perhaps in part because he had asked Fab Five Freddy for an introduction that autumn and hoped he would write a catalogue essay for his upcoming show at Mary Boone Gallery (he agreed and wrote a searing essay in 1985, describing the artist as ‘a heroic embodiment of the impact of Afro-Atlantic civilizations on the world’.5)
To the right of the page is a partially redacted list, which Basquiat has lifted from the index to Flash of the Spirit. The excerpted terms are no longer kept in alphabetical order and entries from ‘Yoruba civilization’ and ‘Yorubaland’ are intermixed. Some phrases have been reduced even further – ‘spiritual possession as experienced in’ becomes ‘spposasexin’ – suggesting the very state of possession (talking in tongues) and a test of the boundaries of encryption. The symbols scattered across the drawing are taken from Thompson’s chapter on ‘Emblems of Prowess’, which explores the ancient ideographs of the Ejagham people of southwestern Cameroon, and their influence in Cuba after slaves were forced there to cultivate sugar on the island. Given Basquiat’s obsession with signs, it is easy to see why he would have loved these rich, spiritual writing systems – these ‘luminous ciphers’ as Thompson calls them – especially since they bear no relationship to Arabic or Latin lettering.6
Basquiat’s choice of excerpted symbols is also deeply revealing, especially if we consider that he made the drawing in the UK. In the bottom left is a small figure with raised arms and arrow hands, meaning ‘all of this country belongs to me’. A series of crosses are scattered like musical notes, relating to ‘word, speech meeting, congress’, while four small forms denote ‘mirror, looking-glass’. In their midst is the word ‘BREADFRUIT’, which conjures the story of Captain William Bligh, who embarked on a six-year journey to Tahiti in 1787 to seek out this cheap, nutritious source of food for a starving slave population. At the top of the page is a circle bisected by a vertical line with an orb on either end, with ‘“WOUND”’ written below, and a small circle with a cross inside, which is the Nsibidi sign drawn on the ceremonial drum of silence. Basquiat includes the word ‘NSIBIDI’ on the upper right, beneath which is a motif of an umbrella and a coat, which is a symbolic shrine to a dead family member, representing their spiritual ascent.
How might we interpret this charged imagery? For me, it voices the silent wounds (and the wound of silence?) from transatlantic slavery, and offers an encoded stream-of-consciousness about Basquiat’s relationship to these histories. Indeed, the only words written in blue on the drawing, crossed out for emphasis, are ‘YERE WOLO’, which Thompson explains is a Mande concept, literally meaning to give birth to yourself – ‘in which a person finds his or her true self, his or her true essence’.7 In this extraordinary work on paper, he seems to be doing exactly that: employing a lexicon of signs and phrases to construct a more complex self – in defiance of the dismal clichés too often made of him by critics – to urge a more honest conversation about Britain’s bloodied colonial past. Yet again, Basquiat’s work remains as urgent as ever.
1 Basquiat’s exhibition was curated by Mark Francis, then Director of the Fruitmarket Gallery. Although a solo presentation, it was timed to coincide with an exhibition of work by the avant-garde composer and artist John Cage, which Basquiat considered a great honour. Both exhibitions ran from 11 August – 23 September 1984. The timing of Basquiat’s visit to the ICA is based on recollections from staff that he enjoyed a show of photographic pop, which seems likely to have been Snap, Razzle and Pop: Pop Photography 1955-1983, 2 August-16 September.
2 Basquiat was interested in Dubuffet’s work and exhibited alongside him in the dubiously titled Expressive Painting After Picasso at the Beyeler Gallery in Basel in 1983. However, as Dick Hebdige has astutely observed, such white male reference points have too often been used for validation, leaving Basquiat ‘bleached of his (b)lackness and delivered into the right foster parents’. Dick Hebdige, ‘Welcome to the Terrordome: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Dark Side of Hybridity’ in Richard Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, pp. 60-67.
3 ‘Galleries Briefing’, The Guardian, Tuesday 18 December 1984, p. 9.
4 Afua Hirsch, ‘Toppling statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next’, The Guardian, 22 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery [accessed 26 September 2020].
5 Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Activating Heaven: The Incantory Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Mary Boone Gallery, 1985, n.p.
6 Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, New York 1984, p. 227.
7 Ibid., p. 196.