“I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it; it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat's Water-Worshipper: Powerful Juxtaposition of Cultural Sampling
B efore Jean-Michel Basquiat became an art world sensation, he was a child of Afro-Caribbean heritage from Brooklyn, highly attuned to the manifestations of racism and structural barriers faced by a young Black artist coming up in New York during the late 1970s and 1980s.
Born in 1960 to a mother of Puerto-Rican heritage and a Haitian father, Basquiat’s ethnicity and his understanding of the past became a dominant force in his art. From 1982 onwards, he turned his attention to the representation of the African diaspora and relationship to racial identity. Situated within an important series of works by Basquiat during this period is Water-Worshipper, an unrivalled masterwork exploring key themes of racism, religion and spirituality, executed in 1984 when the artist’s oeuvre had reached its formal and thematic maturity.
The year 1984 was a crucial moment for Basquiat in style and in content. Just a year earlier, he began his collaboration with Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente, spurred on by their friend and art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. Warhol and Basquiat extended their partnership, and this creative relationship resulted in a cross pollination of influence during the years 1984 and 1985. Basquiat experimented with Warhol’s silkscreen technique, incorporating it into many of his canvas works in 1984. He used this technique on Water-Worshipper, however it is the only documented work of its kind, unique in the way Basquiat used silkscreen on panel.
Exhibited the year after its creation at Basquiat’s milestone solo show at Mary Boone-Michael Warner Gallery in 1985, Water-Worshipper would go on to have a distinguished exhibition history, a testament to the significance of the work.
Robert Farris Thompson would impress Basquiat immensely, as the ideas set forth in the historian's Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983) had a significant role in shaping the artist's work. After reading this book, he incorporated symbols and themes of Thompson’s writings into his paintings from 1984 onwards. Basquiat interrogated the subject of racism in the depiction of black athletes, jazz musicians and his self-portraits.
The African diaspora took a central role in Basquiat's work, a narrative that he began exploring in 1982, arriving at its representation in 1984 through a series of paintings incorporating the logo of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes – an emblem which signifies the transatlantic slave trade. It was an important series of which Water-Worshipper is a superlative example.
Basquiat had a distinctive multi-referential approach and rich intercultural perspective. He drew upon a myriad of sources in the creation of works such as Water-Worshipper: elements from the Western canon of art history, West African symbolism and spiritual systems, the Bible, Haitian Vodou, Creole traditions, and the legacy of slavery.
In Basquiat: Boom For Real, historian and curator Dieter Buchhart parallels Basquiat’s approach with the “‘cut-and-paste’ sampling of the internet and post-internet generations'', drawing comparisons between the artist’s practice and the “cut-up” technique of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. This refers to their method of cutting up words from a variety of sources—from the Bible, to Confucius, newspaper articles and letters— and reconstituting the prose into new text with an entirely new meaning. It was an unorthodox approach to language that Basquiat emulated in his art.
Through assimilating a huge variety of sources, including images, spoken and written word, advertisements, books and articles, Basquiat created a unique visual language that powerfully expressed his contemporary experience in New York, and the interpretation of his own Caribbean ethnicity and the collective memory tied to his West-African heritage.
“In fact, Basquiat’s work exemplifies the complexity of blackness and black experiences. [...] Basquiat also engages with issues of Europe, America, Africa, and the African diasporas, but these are not separate interests. [...] these histories and identities exist simultaneously in a distinctly postmodern reality. The artist’s blackness is constantly changing and shifting; we cannot locate it only in iconography. Instead, we must look at the web of race and ethnicities that the artist creates in his paintings. Jean-Michel Basquiat creates his own polyvocal aesthetic, which we must consider outside of our previous misconceptions about race, culture, and their place in art history.”
Basquiat would take on the history of slavery, powerfully told in his works Logo, Slaveships (Tobacco), Thin Foil and Arm and Hammer II, produced in the same year as Water-Worshipper. These paintings all incorporate the Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes logo, referring to the American tobacco trade and its historical reliance on slave labour. Of these paintings, the incorporation of the white, circular Player’s Navy Cut logo is perhaps most subtle in Water-Worshipper, one of a complex multitude of symbols that expresses the artist’s passionate exploration of self-identity and the difficult history of racism and slavery.
Two figures stand at either side of the image, united by the glowing, circular sun, or moon, in the upper centre. The slave figure is depicted with two slave ships on each side of his head, and his mouth appears to be covered with iron bars.
Basquiat was known to incorporate Nsibidi symbols into his work, and here, the raised arms perhaps refer to the Nsibidi pictogram that denotes, “all this land belongs to me”.
Appearing to greet the snake-wielding slave is the energetic figure on the left of the panel, illustrated in a fizzling red surrounded by an electric yellow aura. It is possible that this is the worshipper referred to in the title, a follower of Mami Wata. Or perhaps this is a figure of a griot, a storyteller in West African tradition who was entrusted with preserving historical narratives by passing on legends to future generations. Basquiat introduced the figure of the griot into his oeuvre around 1984. Given the fact that many of Basquiat’s works include self-portraits of the artist, it is also possible that this griot figure is symbolic of the artist himself, the storyteller of narratives of the African diaspora often neglected in historical accounts and the Western canon of art history.
The form of the snake that hangs limp from the right-hand figure’s arm evokes the representation of the African water goddess, Mami Wata, who was often depicted holding or surrounded by snakes in reference to her chronicled gifts as a snake charmer. Mami Wata was a revered deity in the African Atlantic, often taking the form of a mermaid, and this spiritual tradition evolved to take different shapes across Africa and the Americas. In Haiti, the tradition was integrated into Vodou, a religion that holds an important role in the history of slavery and colonialism as a means of resistance against the French colonial empire.
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
Basquiat’s paintings on or featuring wooden panels are limited in their number, mostly produced in 1984 when Basquiat was living and working in California for a time, but a motif that the artist continued to refer back to until his untimely death in 1988. In 1984, Larry Gagosian helped the artist to rent a studio on Market Street in Venice, California, and it was here that Basquiat began to work on a selection of paintings on reclaimed wooden panels, including Gold Griot (1984) and Untitled (1984).
Basquiat had an ingenious ability to manipulate the materiality of his painterly surface to complement the themes that he explored, intensifying the inherent meanings of his works. Discussing Basquiat’s continual examination of different materials throughout his career, Eleanor Nairne, curator at Barbican Art Gallery, argues that such experimentation “gave his work the desired look of improvised genius,…, Basquiat was able in some of his most powerful artwork to use the materiality of his support to enhance the subject of the piece.” This is especially true in Water-Worshipper, in which Basquiat has included wooden panels at the bottom portion of the image and a metal rod on the right-hand side of the panel. In doing so, Basquiat alludes to the form and construction of a ship, aiding in the narrative capacity of the work by representing a slave ship that is transporting the figure of the slave across the Atlantic. Overall, the physicality and three-dimensionality is a hugely engaging aspect of the work, and the panels and metal rod are striking in their application as a storytelling device, more than just a backdrop to Basquiat’s painted figures.
An important 1984 work to be offered at auction in Asia, Water-Worshipper is an incredible example of Basquiat’s reclamation of his shared history as an American of multi-ethnic heritage. His revolutionary paintings continue to be relevant and provoke much needed dialogue today, proof of the artist’s status as one of the most significant and progressive artists of his generation.