Widow Basquiat: A Love Story- Jennifer Clement

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 “He smells of leather, oil paint, tobacco, marijuana and the faint metallic smell of cocaine. He wears handmade wool sweaters and long Mexican ponchos. He never walks in a straight line. He zigzags wherever he is going.”- Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat

The 1980s in New York were some interesting times, and Basquiat had maybe one of the most colourful lives I’ve ever read about: shopping  with Madonna, hanging out with Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, selling paintings to Debbie Harry.”Widow Basquiat” is a very unconventional love story, then again Basquiat, from what I’ve learned about him, epitomized unconventionality.

The “widow” in this case is Basquiat’s great love, Suzanne Mallouk, and the book goes into the strange, unique, often abusive relationship they had.  Suzanne seems to have been Basquiat’s muse and perhaps one of the few people who got closest to really knowing him. We get a sense of who Basquiat was through his “widow’s”  short reminiscent vignettes.

I guess from my vantage point where I’m exposed to black art and have some knowledge of black artists, it might be easy to forget that black artists were rarely accepted in the mainstream, very white, art world not so long ago (and there are obviously still structural barriers). One line regarding representation said by Basquiat himself really spoke to me: “This is why I paint,” he says.”To get black men into museums.”A lot of this book goes into the issues Basquiat experienced with racism in the art world.  There is talk on the double standards of white versus black artists, for example:

“He is furious because people are writing about his ghetto childhood and call him a ‘graffiti artist’ and ‘primitive.’ “They don’t event a childhood for white artists,” he says.”

I could see his internal struggle: on one hand he was trying to make black art mainstream and respected, on another hand not wanting to accept labels. But he always remembered his past and his influences.

“His paintings were inspired by the jazz musicians and he felt akin to them. A lot of the early jazz artists, of course, couldn’t even walk through the front door of the hotels and clubs they were playing in and had to enter through back doors and kitchens, and I think Jean felt this was a metaphor for his place in the white art world: he had entered through the back door. He broke into the white art world in a way that had never been done before by a black.”

This is a very intense book, it really is. I’m not used to reading books that are very heavy on drug content and self-destruction, and despite already knowing the outcome to Basquiat’s story it was really a tough story to wrap one’s head around. My heart especially went out to Suzanne and what she was forced to go through.

What I got from this book is what I already knew and then some; Basquiat was a multifaceted, complex spirit. This book didn’t try to make excuses for him, it just stated the facts.  Definitely a must-read for any Basquiat fans.

Here’s a link to the documentary:  The Radiant Child

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Art on my Mind: Visual Politics- bell hooks

“Does man love Art?
Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts.
Art urges voyages-
and it is easier to stay at home.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks

hooks sees a dearth in the area of black art critique and she issues a call to arms for more critique and also for a new vocabulary for this to happen.This book is such a great look into the state of black art, especially as it relates to the dominant male Eurocentric art. Although the book was less accessible than hooks’ other books, the relatively slow speed that I read it at meant I took more time to ruminate on what I had read and think about the role that art has played in my life.

I was struck by quite a few of bell hooks’ quotes, primarily about the politics of seeing. hooks says how we see things  and relate to them depends on our worldview. hooks laments  the fact that art is often seen as superfluous in so many black people’s lives just because there might be so many other pressing issues at hand. She finds that worrying for a number of reasons, primarily because of the transformative power of art.
Reading on hooks’ own experiences with art, I thought of my own. Seeing as the majority of the art I’ve viewed is European art, that probably formed the lens through which I view art. It doesn’t help that black art, African in particular, is often called “folk art”, a term that devalues the art both intrinsically and price-wise. Having visited several African countries on vacation with my family and wanting to buy African art for souvenirs,  I was always looked at with some  bemusement as the art was created for (Western) tourist consumption, not for a “local” such as me. I find it interesting that without this Western demand for art, perhaps the art would not have been created but it does beg the question of how authentic the art is as African art as it was created with a western audience in mind. Either way, I liked it and I bought a lot of it.  When I bought batik in Zimbabwe or malachite carvings in South Africa, what I saw was its beauty and the fact that I could buy art I could actually touch, art that wasn’t hung in a gallery somewhere, and art I could relate to on a deeper level because of my heritage.

I have seen some great African diasporic art collections in Toronto and Vancouver and I’m often left thinking why aren’t the artists better known, and why aren’t more journals and magazines writing about their work?  I attended Chantal Gibson’s art talk at the Vancouver Public Library during Black History Month and her discussions on her works Tome and Historical In(ter)ventions: Altered Texts and Border Stories were truly insightful, although it needed her explaining her vision, process etc before I fully understood what she was trying to portray.

Black artists as “image-makers” was a profound point for me. About photography hooks says: “I think about the place of art in black life, connections between the social construction of black identity, the impact of race and class, and the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images, to the process of Image making.”

Photos are seen as a “disruption of white control over black images.” I think of the gollywog on Robertson’s jam labels when I was growing up and  how amazing it is that giving a black person a camera lets them create their own images to counter the negative ones:

“The camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentations well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”

hooks touches on black male art, but her focus is on the feminine. I enjoyed her thoughts on Lorna Simpson‘s work in particular, an artist who uses images of black female bodies that counter stereotypes:

 “Whereas female bodies in this culture depict us as hard, low down, mean, nasty, bitchified, Simpson creates images that give poetic expression to the ethereal, the prophetic dimensions of visionary souls shrouded flesh.”

Although bell hooks is talking mainly about African-Americans and their experiences with art, I feel it’s very similar to the African diaspora’s experiences with, and perceptions of, art.In fact, there is a lot in the book about collective memory of the diaspora. It’s definitely not an easy read but I personally found it very rewarding.

Some Diasporic art:

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Recycled South African art from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. No artist’s name was available.
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The Merger- Mario Miguel Gonzalez, Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino “Remember” (2012) Museum of Anthropology
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“Aguas del Rio” (2009)- Manuel Mendive Hoyo Museum of Anthropology
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Malawian mahogany art on display at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unfortunately no artist names are available. The one on the left is a candlestick holder, and the one on the right is a popular abstract rendition of the African mother and child.
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El Anatsui, a Ghanaian contemporary visual artist who created this piece using recycled bottletops. On display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
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More Malawian art: tea coasters.