Basquiat, multidisciplinary artist, whistleblower of violence against African

The exhibition Full Volume: Basquiat and Music currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, demonstrates that the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is usually associated with painting, calls upon several other media: music – the main theme of this exhibition -, literature, comic strips, cinema and… animation, a much lesser known aspect of his work.

Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. Towards the end of the 1970s, he drew enigmatic graffiti in collaboration with Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO. The artist quickly became known in the New York art world (he became friends with Andy Warhol in particular and frequented Madonna). He then produced solo pictorial works and obtained an ever-growing international reputation until his death in 1988.

At the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is more relevant than ever. It highlights racial inequalities and the lack of representation in the media of racialized people, but also the violence suffered by African-Americans.

This is what I propose to explore in this article. PhD student in literature and performing and screen arts, my research focuses in particular on the interactions between animated cinema and the visual arts (comics, painting) as well as on American cartoons.

Jean-Michel Basquiat with his installation Klaunstance, at the Area, in 1985.
(Photo Ben Buchanan)

Love/hate for the cartoon

Child, Basquiat dreamed of becoming an animator for animated films. Once he became a painter, the television was always on in his studio, regularly airing cartoons. These shows and films were a great source of inspiration for the artist. Indeed, he integrated in his paintings several references to animation or even comic strips.

One of these works that can be seen in the MMFA exhibition is called Toxic (1984). The painting depicts a black man with his arms in the air, with a collage in the background mentioning several titles of animated short films made between 1938 and 1948.

The character is actually Basquiat’s friend, artist Torrick “Toxic” Ablack. the title of the table would therefore refer to it. However, knowing that Basquiat played with words and their meanings“Toxic” could actually mean the relationship he has with the animated films that are mentioned behind the character.

A multidisciplinary artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat was also a musician. The exhibition devoted to him at the MMFA illustrates this aspect of his work.

Could we say that these films are considered toxic by Jean-Michel Basquiat, despite his admiration for them? In fact, I believe that a certain duality sets in in this painting: the artist loves cartoons, but he hates them at the same time. According to the dictionary Little Robertword ” toxic “ can mean “harmful” (in a sneaky way). The term “sneaky” therefore implies that the toxic element (the cartoon in this case) is dangerous without our noticing it.

cartoon violence

The cartoon is often associated with childhood, pleasure, eccentricity.

It is a universe where everything is possible: in Gorilla My Dreams, directed by Robert McKimson in 1948, for example, the rabbit Bugs Bunny speaks, disguises himself as a baby and imitates a monkey. Rather innocent. However, the cartoon can also represent in a very sneaky way the worst of humanity by the incredible violence that it contains: the characters chase each other, chase each other, hit each other, cut each other, kill each other, then start again.

Robert McKimson, Gorilla My Dreams, Warner Bros., 1948.

Thus, in Porky’s Hare Huntfilm directed by Ben Hardaway in 1938 and quoted in Toxic, Porky’s character is injured by dynamite, abused while in his hospital bed, and tries to shoot a rabbit. Basquiat, who consumes cartoons every day on television, knows that they are a reflection of American XX society.e century.

This is an interpretation that could be supported by the title of another of his paintings, which also uses iconography from animation or comics: Television and cruelty to animals (1983). This cruelty is also denounced and reproduced in An Opera (1985) showing a Popeye being hit with the words “senseless violence” above his head as well as in A Panel of Experts (1982), where we see matchstick men hitting each other with an enormous revolver.

The canvas A Panel of Experts, produced in 1982, denounces cruelty and violence.
(MMFA, gift of Ira Young. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo Douglas M. Parker)

This violence that Basquiat denounces is so present in the cartoon that it seems up to a certain point to have become commonplace, like that which we see in the news bulletins on television (which he probably watched while he painted ).

Denounce racial stereotypes

These cartoons are also violent because they often perpetuate racial stereotypes (not to mention the many stereotypes related to sexual orientation, gender, sex, body appearance, etc.).

The film Patient Porkydirected by Bob Clampett in 1940, which is also mentioned in Toxic, features a scene where an elevator valet grossly and monstrously parodies a black character. In the work Untitled (All Stars) (1983), Basquiat quotes the film The Chinamanby Max Fleischer, made in 1920, in which we find a very caricatured character of Asian origin and a Koko the clown putting on makeup to look like him.

Max Fleischer, The Chinaman, Bray Studios, 1920.

Basquiat therefore tries, by placing in his compositions elements referring to animation, to denounce a stereotyped and unfair vision of the world where people of color are portrayed unrealistically. Basquiat also said that if he hadn’t been a painter, he would have been a filmmaker and would have told stories where black people are represented as humans, and no longer in a negative way.

The title of the table Toxic would carry several meanings. It designates both the main subject (Torrick “Toxic” Ablack), but also the relationship it has with popular culture, and animation in this case.

I forgot to mention that the character of Toxic has his arms in the air and his hands reddened. Could it be that this toxic relationship got her hands dirty? Specifically that the character, because the cartoon has continually portrayed black people in pejorative ways, is now portrayed as a criminal? His position indeed indicates that he appears to be under arrest.

Dog Bite/Axe to Grind (1983).
(Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

This hypothesis is very likely since Basquiat produced several works denouncing police brutality against African Americans, including The Death of Michael Stewart (Defacement) (1983).

Basquiat died prematurely in 1988, aged 27. Other artists from the black community, such as Montreal painters Kezna Dalz aka Teenadult, Manuel Matthewand animation filmmaker Martine Chartrand have, in their own way, resumed his fight and continue to fight for greater visibility of black people in the arts.

Basquiat, multidisciplinary artist, whistleblower of violence against African-American communities