Lucinda Ross


Emerging from an early association with street art during the 1980s, the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was largely regarded within the New York avant-garde, as ‘an exotic other,’ a token Black artist in the world of American modern art; a perception which forced him to examine and seek to define his sense of identity within art and within society. Drawing upon what he described as his ‘cultural memory,’ Basquiat deftly mixed together fragments of past and present, creating a unique style of painting, based upon his own experiences of contemporary American life blended with a remembering of an African past. This study will examine the work of Basquiat during the period 1978 – 1988, tracing his progression from obscure graffiti writer SAMO© to successful gallery artist. Situating my study of Basquiat’s oeuvre in relationship to Paul Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic, I will analyse Basquiat’s exploration of his cultural heritage and depiction of a narrative of Black history, which confronts issues of racism and social inequality, and challenges the constraints of traditional binary oppositions. I will examine Basquiat’s representation of the icon of the griot; narrator of African history and mythical talisman, shedding new light on the artist’s reclamation of this powerful totem. Traversing the perimeters of the Black Atlantic I show how Basquiat’s work has influenced both fine art and urban cultural practice in Britain. Through analysis of Basquiat’s self-portraits I will examine his repositioning the black subject, literally and historically, within the tradition of painting, and argue that through this relocation, Basquiat’s work contributes to models of reparative histories. I will consider Basquiat’s processes of identification and his refusal to be labelled ‘a black artist,’ situating his visual construction of self identity in relation to a post-black aesthetic. Analysis of Basquiat’s paintings lies at the heart of my research, and I conclude my study with an in-depth consideration of three paintings created by the artist during the final year of his life which characterise the enduring themes within his expansive body of work. My research contributes to existing scholarship into the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, providing original insight into the work of this important artist.

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