Art is subjective, its interpretation and scale of worthiness living inside our minds. In that sense, it’s not an abstract theory that some artists can achieve immortality. For black fine artists, the percentage of celebrated creators is stark in contrast to that of their European counterparts and seldom includes women. For artists of color, art is not subjective; it’s objectifying, political, and sometimes discriminatory.
No single black artist has ever been held to a more god-like standard than Brooklyn’s own Jean-Michel Basquiat. Born under alarming circumstances of poverty and abandonment, Basquiat rose from street kid to global phenomenon in a flash of brilliance that lasted just over a decade. His heroin-induced death in 1988 at the age of 27 created even more recognition for his complex work, solidifying Basquiat as the poster child for black artists. Today, his name is on the lips of every cool teenager and mainstream rapper; a flame that will never extinguish.
In the same breath, as we pay homage to an influential artist, it’s worth asking if his legacy has opened the doors for black artists after him to achieve the same status. Is Basquiat the Martin Luther King Jr. of the art world? Are we doomed to learn and relearn the same works? Who carries Basquiat’s torch, and pushes the art world forward?
Multidisciplinary artists like Gianni Lee, Reginald Sylvester, Eric Mack, Quiana Parks, and Uzumaki Cepeda are just a handful of today’s legends in the making, and the list grows as you dig past the surface. It used to be that black creativity was limited to sports and entertainment. In 2020, you can now be as free and open as you want without the stigma, though black artists are still not reaching the levels of success that they should. Are the prevailing issues of Basquait’s generation still present?
I spoke with a few multidisciplinary artists — including my mother, a painter of 30 years — on Basquiat, the art world, discrimination, value, success, side hustles, and other black artists you should study up on.
Did you choose to become a fine artist, or did you fall into it?
Gianni Lee: I don’t even know if it’s really up to me to decide if I’m a fine artist or not; I just label my work that way because honestly, that’s what I make, and I believe it wholeheartedly. I believe I can produce fine art, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that. But I feel it’s up for the public to decide if I am a fine artist or not.
Quiana Parks: I’ve always known I was an artist, but I started to study fine art when I was 12 years old.
Julia Kito Kirtley: I knew about art at a young age because my mother used to practice drawing portraits of my siblings and I. Most of my education comes from elementary art school teachers and community center programs [back in the ’70s]. I did not formally study art until I enrolled in Pratt Institute in my 30’s.
Anthony Jamari Thomas: I certainly decided to make a firm decision to start sharing my thoughts creatively in the last few years. At this point, I am deeply concerned with the politics of memory, history, and, more recently, mortality. I believe I have incredible synchronicity with photography and performance, but I plan to return to traditional painting shortly.
Are you a fan of Basquiat’s work?
Malik Kirkwood: I am intrigued by Basquiat the person, first and foremost. His spirit is alive. Thank you for your work, for your passion, for your inspiration.
AJT: JEAN! I love JMB’s work. A part of the reason why I’m here is studying the intensity of his mind and his fearlessness. He is a shaman, conjuring portals in each piece, melodic and very forceful like a wind, but his handling of history, although bold, was also so delicate. That sweet spot — that sweet, sweet spot.
JKK: I am a big Basquiat fan. I loved his cityscapes because it had a lot of movement. Like you can hear the horns honking and people talking and the music of some underground dance club [through the work].
GL: No. I’m a fan of his process, though.
QP: I am, and I’m also not so much. I absolutely love Basquiat, but sometimes when I look at certain works of his… I’m not feeling the energy. But I mean it’s Basquiat, his work is legendary.
Do you carry your ethnicity into the expression in your work, or are you creating from a different eye?
GL: I feel like there’s no way I cannot create from the lens of blackness because that is indeed the person I am. As a black person, blackness will always covertly or overtly will show up in my work. I can’t control that.
AJT: I mean, it’s there, it isn’t going anywhere. As I take the photo, as I perform or paint, my blackness is in the corner of the room, staring at me — transitioning between my eye, my hand, and my mind. Every work is a mirror; I don’t have to work hard to speak on my identity because I am what I am. It’s eternal; this is my skin, my position. I guess I spend more time understanding this specific identity I have received — how does it want to perform, where does it want to go? I’m very interested in the concept of destiny: What does the black body have to look forward to in the endgame?
JKK: My ethnicity is a great inspiration. Black features are magical to me. I often look at African masks and artifacts for inspiration when doing my characters. But I’m also inspired by Ernie Barnes and Al Hirschfeld.
Do you ever feel pressured to make “black art” or art reflective of black issues?
GL: All the time. It doesn’t mean that I will make a move because [of it], but I feel a responsibility because I am sharing this with many others who are consistently discriminated against, policed, and abused. So I have to speak up.
AJT: I used to, but not anymore. Going back to what I said previously, I am black, so this will always peer and live within my work. However, labeling the work by my identity or ethnic position is a bit troubling for me. Ultimately, I would like our thoughts, issues, and concerns to be considered just like any other community. In the past, [I’ve noticed] when “black” is tethered to a concept such as art, commerce, or other agents of social exchange bring the excuse or potential for [negligence].
As a black artist, are you celebrated for your career choice, or are people often confused or surprised by it?
QP: People are more often surprised. They’re always like, “So what do you do for work, though?”
JKK: I get a lot of people who say, “Are you still doing art?” I’m like, “This is all I know.” So I will always be doing art. Art keeps me sane.
MK: I don’t care, in the most respectful way possible.
Have you experienced discrimination in the art world?
AJT: I’m pretty sure I’ve come across prejudice in this industry, unknowingly, but I’ve never felt so to an explicit degree. I have peers who have been kept away from opportunities because of their creed, gender, or sexual orientation. I mean, we’re telling narratives about our experience, personal truths about the spiritual, historical pilgrimage of “blackness.” I can see how this may turn some people away, who don’t want to hear America’s artifacts speak or don’t care to acknowledge the perspective.
GL: Yes, I’ve felt discrimination from my own even. I don’t want to get into much detail, but I always felt like I am currently compiling and creating the work that is on the level of people that are in places I’m not, but when I attempt to be in those same places, I feel ignored or overlooked.
QP: No, honestly. I have yet to be a part of the art world.
What stories are you focused on telling right now?
QP: I’m focused on fear right now. Mostly on how fear affects the black woman.
GL: I’m focused on telling the story of the black man and woman smiling. It’s getting way more layered than that, but to keep it simple, I want more images of black people in capes, more images of black people smiling.
MK: Honest ones. Inclusive ones. Responsible ones. Informed ones.
AJT: Right now, all of them are screaming very loudly in my head. There’s a huge range. Let’s just say it’s somewhere in between the first track on Terrace Martin’s last album and my mother’s smile.
Educate us on three black artists other than Basquiat that the world should know more about.
MK: Kandis Williams. David Hammons. Anthony Jabari Thomas.
AJT: I’ll just drop a few names. You, my brother Reginald Sylvester, Medhane, LoftBlue, Craig Handfield, Martine Rose, Brandon Weems, Eric N. Mack, Grace Wales Bonner, Tremaine Emory, my momma and all my homies of the melanated tribe who are expressing their minds freely without hesitation.
GL: Ramelzee died and many say it was because of the inhalation of spray can fumes. Ed Clark has the dopest single stroke art using push brooms as his brushes, legendary. Noah Davis, no explanation needed. Look him up.
QP: I love Charles White, David Hammond, Tschabalala Self, Keegan Carter.
JKK: Me. Me. Me.