The documentary “Basquiat, Africa at Heart” by Cyril Bérard dissects Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influential trip to Africa. Basquiat rose to fame when contemporary art establishments embraced his street graffiti work, finding it raw, vibrant and revolutionary. His art became the embodiment of hip hop as part of street movements that included rap and punk. He appropriated poetry, found articles, paintings, folk masks, and painted in his graffiti murals and drawings. His meteoric rise came to an abrupt end at age 27 when he died of a heroin overdose.
Contrary to popular belief, or at least those who do not know his origins, Basquiat was not a poor street kid. He grew up in a middle-class Brooklyn family and attended art school. Very smart, he is fluent in French, Spanish and English.His mother encouraged his artistic inclinations and presciently sent him a copy Grey’s Anatomy This ultimately had an external influence on his future art. When his parents divorced, he lived with his siblings and their father. His mother’s mental illness, and the fact that he was placed in a mental hospital when he was very young, made him very disturbed.
Rebellious by nature, he tested the limits of his teachers, friends and family before dropping out, a move that prompted his father to kick him out of the house. He crashed with friends and continued his street art with his graffiti buddy and school friend Al Diaz.
He was soon discovered by important Manhattan gallerists and was represented by major dealers when he was 20 years old. It was his international dealer Bruno Bischofberger who introduced him to Warhol. By 1983, at 22, he became the youngest artist to be exhibited at the Whitney Museum Biennial.
In 1986 Bischofberger organized his trip to Côte d’Ivoire to have an exhibition of his work at the French Cultural Institute in Abidjan. Although the show received only mixed reviews from bewildered audiences who found the work astounding, his art resonated particularly strongly with local African artists, most of whom were The establishment of the community was rejected. A group of artists known as Vouvou, a derogatory term used to imply worthless trash, were very attracted to his work because it was so similar to their own. The poor, who had no money to buy paints and canvases, improvised with cardboard, copper, animal bark, tree bark and feathers found in the village. Their themes, most of which appear in Basquiat’s work, reflect skulls, death, fear and their dark skin. Neither Vouvou nor Basquiat had met before. The similarities are striking. Although Basquiat had never been to Africa, he explained it was a cultural memory. As he put it, “I don’t have to look for it. It exists. It’s in Africa. Our cultural memory is everywhere.”
Basquiat later said he was looking for a spiritual connection. Unfortunately, however, he seems to have disengaged, refusing to communicate with artists eager for dialogue. The African artist explained that the main function of African art is to ward off evil spirits, to drive away misery and desolation. They used a number of totem symbols in their work, which, ironically, also appear in Basquiat’s work. He then traveled to Cotonou in Benin. But it was his association with Ouattara Watts, an African artist whom he met in Paris in 1988, that instilled in him a desire to return. He and Watts planned to travel to Côte d’Ivoire together that summer. This is by no means because Basquiat died of an overdose in August.
This excellent documentary is less about Basquiat’s art and more about his unintentional impact in opening doors for African artists working in similar mediums. Basquiat’s fame left critics eye-opening in search of “the next new wave.” black chorus is a magazine established in 1990 to highlight contemporary African art. A series of international exhibitions called African Remixes followed. A museum has been established in Cotonou featuring local art and provides art education to children in the area. The kids really identify with Basquiat’s art and find ways to express themselves, always encouraged by the curators. The Zinsu Foundation sponsored many such art projects, and held an exhibition of his work in Cotonou in 2007, funded by the Italian Enrico Navarra, one of Basquiat’s leading collectors, without insurance at the time Company underwriting.
It’s worth noting that nearly all of the experts interviewed were white, an unfortunate reflection of the reality of the art world then and now. That being said, the opinion of Marie Cecile Zinsou, president of the Zinsou Foundation, is informative, compassionate, and educational. Of particular interest are the perspectives and opinions of African artists who follow him. Seeing their work and hearing their explanations is a window into the appeal of Basquiat and their own work. The circle is complete.
French with English subtitles.
“Basquiat, Africa at Heart” was produced for the French-language channel TV5 Monde, available for subscription through some cable and satellite providers, and will be available starting August 1.