When I first entered the Barbican’s Boom For Real exhibition, attendants instructed me to start upstairs first to best experience and understand Basquiat’s work. ‘Go clockwise; then come downstairs and go counter clockwise.’ More than once I moved toward pieces that spoke to me in a direction not prescribed by the curators. On these occasions an usher, an attendant, an older white man, stopped me. Thinking they were being helpful, they all told me I was going the wrong way.
Black people constantly move through and negotiate cultural spaces that are not made for us. Indeed most institutions are not made for us. Yet still we persist! In doing so we build up resilience, an ability to take from spaces what we need, to enjoy spaces despite the architects, curators and designers seldom considering much less centring our gaze.
The Barbican’s much anticipated large-scale exhibition is an autopsy of Basquiat; less a retrospective, than a dissection. Not only is this exhibition built for London’s white gallery-attending audience, it’s expectations of that audience are low. I’ve helped co-curator Eleanor Nairne enunciate the silent white in her rationale:
“I sympathise with why somebody [white] might look at one of these paintings and feel dumbfounded. So, we wanted to do as much of this as we could; to give [white] people cues to get entry points into the work.”
The Barbican website entices the audience with a sleek promotional video that pronounces Basquiat the, ‘Prodigy of downtown New York … Collaborator and Friend to Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Blondie.’ Although they use old school Hip Hop as the soundtrack, accentuating Basquiat’s connections to Hip Hop with the same large bold letters as the white artists they name check, risks dissuading one kind of audience but would speak more directly to another. Basquiat, the one who in 1983 produced Beat Bop commonly known as the ‘Holy Grail’ of Hip Hop records, would not act as ‘a cue’ for the intended Barbican audience.
To confirm my suspicions, at the exhibition I read – exasperated – a basic and simplistic description of the birth of Hip Hop. Who needs a description of Hip Hop in 2017 at a Basquiat exhibition in London? Perhaps they needed to explain to their audience that strange music playing in the promotional video that lured them into the space. Perhaps there are justifiable reasons for this and other chosen cues; reasons known only to the expert curators. However their choices make clear who their exhibition aims to most accommodate; and that certainly isn’t me!
The curators’ accommodation for one audience over another is evident over the two floors of the exhibition. The curators hold the audience’s hand and takes it on a non-confrontational, historically linear tour, perhaps to justify the price of the ticket, to prove the hype, or to validate the staggering commercial value of Basquiat’s work. Within the exhibition the curators include two films with a combined running time of over 2 hours; complete with comfy seats occupying two large spaces. Notwithstanding the value of these films, this huge allowance for the audience’s ignorance requires absolutely no work to be done beyond paying for the ticket.
A basic Google search would inform potential audience members that Basquiat was a New York born artist from an upper middle-class family with a private elite education, fluent in four languages by the age of 11. Still the curators seem overly eager to prove Basquiat’s credibility as an intelligent artist. Basquiat’s creative output filled with references to literature and music is something even a non expert can recognize. Still the curators thought it necessary to inform the audience ‘books had a particular appeal to Basquiat’. They go as far as to display a glass bookcase filled with books he had read; one bookcase in the centre of each of the main exhibition rooms, as if the Barbican audience needs to be constantly reminded that there is an academic underpinning to Basquiat’s oeuvre.
The curators key entry points are by way of white artists. Correspondence between Andy Warhol and Basquiat is used, as Nairne states, “to expand the narrative about his parental relationship to Basquiat.” To strengthen a popular narrative of Warhol as father figure to Basquiat strikes me as less insightful and (intentionally or not) serves to perpetuate an absent black father or ‘white saviour’ stereotype.
A more interesting narrative might have been how Basquiat chose to leave a very comfortable home with tons of agency, confidence and social capital bequeathed through his father’s example of hard work and self-reliance; and his mother’s love of art and museums. Because he was loved he returned home frequently and sought to make his family proud. While the relationship with Warhol is significant, surrogate parenting somehow seems superfluous. A self-possessed Basquiat predicted and calculated his success and then identified and cultivated the avenues to that success.
Basquiat choose to live as a true artist; one whose entire focus was the production of art and not just paintings. To the art world, he said, ‘You want graffiti? I’ll give you that. Drawings? I’ll give you that too. How about conceptual pieces? Sculpture? Poetry?’ He knew he was brilliant and he knew how to perform brilliance. As a recent article explains from the clothes he wore to the art he made, Basquiat was acutely aware that his whole life was a performance.
And what about the work? Basquiat produced an astonishing catalogue with intense energy fuelled by an insatiable artistic drive to interpret his environment, channel his multiple identities, expel the ghosts of slavery, implicate capitalist greed, and to elucidate complex ideas about his place as a young black man in a Western capitalist society. The Barbican exhibition’s curation for a white middle class audience misuses and undermines Basquiat’s definition of Boom For Real which for him meant to take everything in his world, all those things that inspired him, and interpret them through his vision. He sought to make them explode onto the canvas for us to consider and to interpret.
Central to Basquiat’s artistic expression is a celebration of Black people. In Basquiat’s work he creates codes and messages meant for us. They guide our understanding of the economic structures that served to facilitate our enslavement and lead to a deeper understanding of paradigms that facilitated and enabled our existence and our survival in the West – anatomical, mathematical, musical and spiritual paths taken to be free.
Basquiat’s work reinterprets European fine art techniques, re-imagines their heroes, and then throws it all back with a fierce energy that confronts systems of economic and social domination in the West; the structures and forms that most benefit white people. Basquiat disrupts unflinchingly. He documents white supremacy and creates considerable discomfort.
No wonder, then, that an interpretation of his work for and by white, middle class tastes in London fails to engage with this challenge. Instead seeking to position Basquiat as an exotic among a white artistic cannon rather to engage with his criticism of it. No wonder, then, that I should try and find a different way of navigating this significant Basquiat exhibition. That, like him, when faced with an worldview that privileges the powerful rather than the marginalised I choose to go the ‘wrong way’.