Jean-Michel BasquiatTHIS LAND USED TO BE IN COTTONTHIS LAND USED TO BE IN VEGTABLESNOW IT’S IN TOBACCO
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1981 (fig. 1)
Rich in symbolism, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s highly complex works deeply influenced the New York art scene of the 1980s. At the mere age of 21, Basquiat was invited to participate at documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982 alongside works by Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. Today, his revolutionary oeuvre is compared to the grand masters of art history. His motifs and idiosyncratic aesthetic continue to inspire new artists and his art remains a contemporary mirror of present-day society. The topicality of Basquiat’s themes, his awareness of artistic strategies, his transformation of famous symbols and logos as well as the raw objectivity with which he approached his subjects are masterfully exemplified in Water-Worshipper
) from 1984.
Basquiat’s oeuvre reached its zenith in terms of pictorial complexity in 1983, after which in the following year he developed his intensive collaboration with Andy Warhol. After the collaboration on 15 works between Warhol, Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, which was initiated by Bruno Bischofberger, the joint output of Warhol and Basquiat grew to more than 150 works in 1984/85 (fig. 2). Despite the differences between the two artists, the mutual influence on each other’s oeuvre is clearly visible. Inspired by Basquiat, Warhol returned to his painterly beginnings of the early 1960s whereas Basquiat started to sample his earlier collages via Warhol’s silkscreen technique. Comparable to his famous Blue Ribbon
series, which today is part of the Schorr Family Collection, Basquiat created a series of paintings where he impressively combined elements of silkscreen, brushstroke and drawing. Water-Worshipper
is the only documented work in which the artist experimented with silkscreen on plywood.
Thematically, it was around 1984 that Basquiat began to intensify his dialogue with religious systems of the African diaspora. In the monumental key work Grillo
(fig. 3), Basquiat contrasted and overlapped the signs and pictograms originating from African tradition with those of Western civilisation as taken from Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, tracing an African cultural continuity in America and thereby pointing towards an Afro-American self-confidence. Water-Worshipper
is also linked with the great masterpieces of 1982/83 such as Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta
(fig. 4). These works display Basquiat’s intensive engagement with racism, colonialism and slavery, which were both nurtured from personal experiences as well as his interest in Afro-American history. Glenn O’Brien reflected: “Jean-Michel — in designer clothes, pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar-bills — wasn’t able to get a taxi”. Basquiat himself noted that he enjoyed reading books by the American Realist Mark Twain, who in his books such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” described quotidian racism with his protagonists being able to discern the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the ruling class.
Basquiat engages with religious systems of the African Diaspora as well as with slavery and racism. The reduced pictorial composition is mainly guided by three elements: firstly through a logo, which is applied via silkscreen and partially overpainted with brown color on the right; secondly a yellow framed standing figure with extended arms on the left; and thirdly the attached wooden slat below the image, out of which a metal rod extends into the image.I. The Tobacco (Slaveship) Logo
The logo-like head of the figure on the right is derived from the logo of the tobacco company Player’s Navy Cut (fig. 5). In the silkscreen work Untitled (Tobacco)
also from 1984 (fig. 6), Basquiat transformed the white, blue-eyed, blonde sailor, whose cap read “HERO”, into an African slave with wide eyes and African jewellery and a loin cloth, whilst keeping the sailboat and the steamboat. The rope of the safety buoy within the cigarette-design is elaborated, the brand name “PLAYER’S” is exchanged with the word “TOBACCO”, and the word the “TRADE MARK” is exaggerated significantly. Then in Slaveships (Tobacco)
(fig. 7), the white hero becomes the African slave, and the merchant ships turn into slave ships. Here, the figure’s red-framed eyes seem widened with terror. Finally in Water-Worshipper, Basquiat turned the logo into a new pictorial and compositional element, retaining the association with the logo whilst adding new meaning. Partially overpainting the logo with white acrylic, Basquiat removed the mouth and added vertical stripes that resemble bars – thereby removing the subject’s voice and supressing his voice. He also supplemented the body just below the logo with a brown colour field. The use of the logo thus retains the association to slave ships, the transatlantic slave trade as well as the use of slaves on tobacco plantations in the southern states; while the work’s title Water-Worshipper alludes to a symbol of the cultural continuity of Africa in North America.II. Mami Wata
Basquiat refers to the worshipping of the water goddess or ghost known as Yemaya in Haitian Voodoo, the Goddess of the Ocean and the Moon; one can find the moon in the upper left portion of the painting. In the mid-1980s Basquiat increasingly explored Voodoo themes, which has its origins in Yoruba, just like Santeria, Umbanda, Candomble and Macumba. The Yoruba are a West-African tribe that originated from the south-west of Nigeria, such as Benin and Togo. Their religious culture is influenced by both the Islam and Christianity.1
The transatlantic slave trade, which forced Africans into the New World, brought their religious traditions to America. In Water-Worshipper
Basquiat transformed the figure of the “Tobacco (Slaveship)”-logo by adding raised arms which holds a snake, rendering the figure a representation of “Mami Wata”. Such an “ultimate icon of Mami Wata” derives from a German illustration of a snake charmer from the late 19th century and was later used as a symbol for the goddess.2
The complexity of the cultural influences in Basquiat’s oeuvre is also visible in the wealth of iconography: in this work, the snake is seen as a reference to the religious system of the African diaspora, whereas in other works events from the Tora or the Bible are explored, evidencing Basquiat’s consummate weaving of religion and culture and its metaphorical effects for the African diaspora. In the silkscreen Don’t Tread on Me
(fig. 8), Basquiat’s overlaying of the snake on top of a Warhol Dollar sign refers to “Gadsden Flag” which was used as a symbol of the colonies before the American Revolution and has since become a symbol for freedom of thought and anarchism.3
In this way, the artist used “Mami Wata” both as a symbol for cultural influences and as a sign for water and transportation, which in turn represents the flourishing trade and the traumatic deportation of African slaves. The figure on the left, seen as a follower or worshipper of “Mami Wata”, can also be associated with African Nkisi figures and Voodoo dolls, demonstrating the versatility of the figure: while “The Mother of Waters” helped people find new freedom and individuality, it also created a new ‘we’ in a context in which most people were ‘others’, instigating a reaction to a dominant culture, be it colonial or a (westernized) global culture”.4III. The meaning of the medium
The above interpretations are intensified by the choice of material support in Water-Worshipper
. Basquiat painted the figurative images on plywood but attached five horizontal rows of wooden slats below, which he then nailed to three visible pieces of timber. With such a strategy, the artist connects Water-Worshipper
to the group of paintings he introduced in November 1982 at the Fun Gallery which marked a new phase in Basquiat’s oeuvre.5
His gallerist Bruno Bischofsberger notes, “I liked that show the best. The work was very rough, not easy, but likable. It was subtle and not too chic”.6
The works in the show examined medium and its physicality by going against the norm of a stretched canvas. Instead of a using a canvas stretcher, Basquiat’s assistant Stephen Torten stretched the canvas on wooden pallets and wooden strips that were held together with twine and/or nails. By attaching metal rods in Water-Worshipper
, Basquiat further emphasized the impression of an assemblage, drawing comparisons to Robert Rauschenberg’s Combined Paintings
and their interest in haptic surfaces. As with Rauschenberg, daily objects were no longer transformed onto two-dimensional surfaces and projected into different orders, but instead keep their from, identity and three-dimensionality.7
The wooden planks and the metal rod in Water-Worshipper
are clearly accentuated as part of the artwork, with the planks in particular being reminiscent of wooden boats. By alluding to boat building and ships, Noah’s ark to be specific, Basquiat awards biblical symbolism to the materiality of the medium wood whilst also referencing slave ships. The wooden planks become a metonym for boats, slave ships and the slave trade in and on itself. In other words, Basquiat created not just a monument against racism and slavery but a melange of cultural symbols that reveal intersecting meanings for the African diaspora vis-a-vis Western culture. The power and vitality of the Nkisi-figure, accentuated by the yellow thunderbolt and its aura, symbolizes her crucial influence in this highly complex and multi-layered artwork.
It is in this way that Water-Worshipper
reflects our contemporary times and society just as it reflects history – the very reason why Basquiat’s work continues to influence the younger artist generations today. By confronting social exclusion, suppression, exploitation and racism, Basquiat’s works constantly offer new associations and possibilities of interpretation. Against all hardship and frustration Basquiat represents a humanistic attitude. He formulated his goal when answering the question as to which movie he would film:8
“Ones in which black people are portrayed as being people of the human race. And not aliens and not all negative and not all thieves and drug dealers and the whole bit. Just real stories”.9
1 Jordana Moore Saggese: Reading Basquiat. Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles und London 2014, S. 43-53.
2 Alex van Stipriaan: Watramama / Mami Wata. Three Centuries of Crealization of a Water Spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe. In: Gordon Collier und Urs Fleischmann (Hg.): A Pepper-Pot of Cultures: Aspects of Creolization in the Caribbean, Matatu 27-28, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam und New York 2003, S. 329.
3 Vgl. Dieter Buchhart: Against All Odds. In: Dieter Buchhart (Hg.): Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now’s The Time, Ausstellungskatalog Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario [7. 2. – 5. 10. 2015], among others, Munich / London / New York, Prestel Verlag, 2015, S.18.
4 Alex van Stipriaan; Watramama / Mami Wata. Three Centuries of Creolization of a Water Spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe. In: Gordon Collier und Urs Fleischmann (Hg.): A Pepper-Pot of Cultures: Aspects of Creolization in the Caribbean, Matatu 27-28, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam und New York 2003, S. 330.
5 Vgl. Dieter Buchhart: Jean-Michel Basquiat. Revolutionär zwischen Alltag, Wissen und Mythos. In: Dieter Buchhart u.a. (Hg.): Basquiat, Ausstellungskatalog Fondation Beyeler, Basel [9. 5. – 5. 9. 2010], Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2010, S. XV.
6 Bruno Bischofberger zit. nach: Cathleen McGuigan: New Art, New Money - The Marketing of an American Artist. In: The New York Times Magazine. 10. Februar 1985, Titelgeschichte, S. 33.
7 Vgl. Rosalind E. Krauss: Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image. In: Artforum, Jg. 13., Heft 4, New York 1974, S. 36-43.
8 Der Antwort Basquiats ging folgender Dialog voraus: BJ: If you didn’t paint, what do you think you’d be doing? JMB: Directing movies, I guess. I mean ideally, yeah. BJ: What kind of movies would you want to do? Jean Michel-Basquiat interviewed by Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis, Beverly Hills, California, 1985: I Have to Have Some Source Material Around Me. In: Dieter Buchhart u.a. (Hg.): Basquiat, Ausstellungskatalog Fondation Beyeler, Basel [9. 5. – 5. 9. 2010], Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2010, S. XXVI.
9 Jean Michel-Basquiat interviewed by Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis, Beverly Hills, California, 1985: I Have to Have Some Source Material Around Me. In: Dieter Buchhart u.a. (Hg.): Basquiat, Ausstellungskatalog Fondation Beyeler, Basel [9. 5. – 5. 9. 2010], Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2010, S. XXVI.