Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Hollywood Africans: African Americans and the Entertainment Industry in Basquiat’s Work

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s seminal piece Hollywood Africans exemplifies many of the themes that recur throughout his oeuvre, from autobiographical detail, to racism and social and political criticism, in his unique Neo-Expressionist style. In this article, Singulart investigates the themes of this painting and takes a closer look at the revolutionary work of Jean Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat: Early Life in New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was an African-American artist who reinvigorated the New York art scene of the 1980’s with his neo-expressionist paintings and drawings. Born in Brooklyn, New York, his passion for art blossomed at a young age and was encouraged by his mother, who enrolled him as a junior member at the Brooklyn Museum of Art at the age of six. He was hit by a car aged eight and while he was recovering his mother bought him a copy of the medical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy, which proved eye-opening to Basquiat and influential to his auto-didactic artistic education. He was a very intelligent child, fluent in French, Spanish and English by the age of eleven and in 1967 he began attending Saint Ann’s, a private school specializing in the arts.

When Basquiat was thirteen, his mother was committed to a mental institution, which led to much of the instability and unrest in the artist’s childhood. At fifteen, he ran away from home for a week, then dropped out of High School at seventeen to attend the alternative arts school known as “City-As-School”. His father kicked him out of the house for dropping out of high school, from which point Basquait lived between friends’ houses in Brooklyn and supported himself selling homemade t-shirts and postcards. However his transition to renowned artist did not take long, as by 1980 he was selling paintings for upwards of $25,000.

Rapid Rise to Fame

Basquiat’s rise to fame can be traced to 1976, when he began to graffiti buildings with his friend Al Diaz under the pseudonym “SAMO”. The pair sprayed enigmatic tags onto the walls on the Lower East Side, mixing street art with music culture. From here, he went on to make a name for himself as an artist in his own right, exhibiting in “The Times Square Show” in June 1980, where he caught the attention of several art critics and curators. After seeing the exhibition, the Italian gallerist Emilio Mazzoli invited Basquiat to Modena for his first solo show in 1981.

In the same year, Artforum published an article about Basquait entitled “The Radiant Child”. He had his second exhibition in Modena in March 1982 before moving to Venice, California to work in Larry Gagosian’s studio space. Here he worked on paintings for his exhibition in 1983 at Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood, accompanied by his girlfriend at the time, the then unknown, Madonna.

Basquiat and Madonna at his New York studio
Basquiat and Madonna at his New York studio

During this time he was inspired by the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whom he visited often while he was working at Gemini G.E.L in West Hollywood, and Rauschenberg’s influence can be seen in Basquiat’s use of found objects such as discarded doors in the place of a canvas. He also exhibited with Annina Nosei, alongside artists such as Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger before his first one man show in America with the gallery in 1982. At this time, Basquiat also met and became close friends with Andy Warhol and the pair collaborated on works between 1983 and 1985, with Warhol helping to boost Basquiat into the art “establishment” of the time, and Basquiat helping to rejuvenate Warhol’s image.

Warhol and Basquiat
Warhol and Basquiat

Basquiat’s success continued until his premature death, at the age of 27, from a heroin overdose. Despite relative commercial success during his short life-time, his work was still often rejected by many institutions until after his death, with his first retrospective being held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992. The prejudices of the art establishment as well as the many reasons for Basquiat’s exclusion from it, are among the many themes that traverse his works.

Hollywood African and The Style and Themes of Basquiat

Jean’Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983

Basquiat did not have a traditional artistic training, he stated that: “I never went to art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it”. Consequently most of the themes in Basquiat’s work come from his contemporary culture. Regarding the inspiration behind his works, he stated: “I don’t think about art while I work, I try to think about life.” Indeed he often painted to jazz music, with the TV on and the windows open, surrounding himself with the noises and influences of his present day New York. Basquiat’s artistic approach resulted in a focus on “suggestive dichotomies” around themes such as mortality, race and self identity.

Basquiat appropriated references and symbols from a wide range of sources, from music, to history and religion, providing a political and social commentary of his personal experience as an African American in the society of this time. His very unique, personal style was a similarly varied mix, combining influences from his street art debut to neo-expressionism and often mixed recurrent symbols such as heads or crowns with textured scribbles, colors and words.

Hollywood Africans in Focus

Hollywood Africans, is one of a series of paintings made by Basquiat investigating the theme of African Americans in the entertainment industry. On a square 213 x 213 cm canvas, Basquiat applied layers of pure color, from turquoise to black and most prominently yellow to cover the canvas. On top of this he has drawn words, figures and symbols in his signature, hand-drawn style, creating a vibrant, charged composition. The most prominent features are the three heads and the hand to the right of the canvas, surrounded by words such as “tobacco”, “gangsterism” and “sugar cane” as well as the paintings title itself, Hollywood Africans.

Detail of textual elements in Hollywood Africans
Detail of textual elements in Hollywood Africans

Hollywood Africans was painted during a trip to Los Angeles in 1983 and includes several autobiographical references as it depicts the rapper Rammellzee and the painter Toxic, who had traveled to Los Angeles with him, as well as the numbers of his birth date (12, 22 and 60). Juxtaposed with this are references to the limited space allowed for black actors in Hollywood as well as phrases historically associated with racism. The notions of exclusion and segregation in this composition are further implied by the fact that many of the words are crossed out, a technique that Basquiat explained by stating: “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” It is through his combining of positive messages with more degrading, stereotypical ones that Basquiat conjures up such a strong image that simultaneously critiques popular culture and American society.

Love Hollywood Africans? See artists in the style of Basquiat in the official Singulart Inspired by Jean Michel Basquiat collection.

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