Coming from the politically marginalised background of a Haitian family and growing up at a time when racism was pervasive throughout society, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oeuvre is filled with references to outsider cultures and critiques of mainstream politics. His most iconic motif is arguably that of the crowned black head, as depicted in Untitled, which proudly presents the black man as the central subject of his paintings. Whilst visiting museums at a young age, the artist quickly noticed how the subjects of western art were exclusively white, with people of colour traditionally only occupying inferior positions. By elevating his ‘black heroes’ (predominantly sportsmen and jazz musicians) to the key figures in his paintings, Basquiat forcefully countered this racial imbalance.
Whilst black identity is indeed at the centre of Basquiat’s oeuvre, he was equally critical of capitalism and its side-effects. Untitled is an excellent example of his concern with systems that control and exploit natural resources for the creation of wealth. Next to the iconic crowned head, Basquiat has collaged four sheets which depict the striking drawing of a crocodile’s head surrounded by the word rubber, which has been repeated countless times across the sheets. The power of repetition, as Warhol had indeed also discovered, is undeniable and draws the viewer into Basquiat’s complex symbolic universe. As various related works suggest, and as is indeed hinted at by the black car tire, the artist’s interest in rubber goes back to the Second World War when the United States introduced rubber rationing to steer all supplies to the army for use in gas masks, inflatable rafts and military vehicles – leaving families immobile with a limited number of car tires to get through the war. Moreover, natural rubber production has a loaded history that is intertwined with colonialism and racism, revealing the complex and politicised relationship between society and natural resources. Carbon has a similarly complex social dimension – being both the fourth most abundant element in the universe and one of the most sought-after in the form of diamonds. As Richard Marshall observed: 'These frequent references…reveal Basquiat's interest in aspects of commerce - trading, selling and buying. Basquiat is scrutinizing man's seizure and monopolization of the earth's animal and material resources, and questioning why and how these resources, that are ideally owned by all of the world's inhabitants, have become objects of manipulation, power, and wealth at the expense of the well being of all mankind' (Richard Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Subjects’, quoted in Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, p.43).
Bringing together these key elements from Basquiat’s oeuvre – the black hero, the artist’s strong political concerns, his fusion of street culture and high art, and of course his unique visual language – Untitled stands as a strong testament to Basquiat’s influential career. From an outsider perspective he criticised racial inequality and societal injustice through a unique and visually captivating language that still resonates powerfully today.
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