Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, and raised in culturally diverse Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s, Basquiat was painfully aware of the shadow that colonialism had cast over his personal heritage and African-American culture at large. Whilst operating in an art world whose protagonists were almost exclusively white, he made paintings filled with explicit textual reference to European colonisation, the slave trade, and to the industries and commodities that were wholly reliant upon it: tobacco, cotton and, as is referenced in the present work, salt. Natives Carrying Things is deeply evocative of the potent Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, which Basquiat had made the previous year. Where that earlier work was overt in its references to the colonial era, featuring a cartoonish juxtaposition between the rifle-toting European and the sardonic trope of the 'African native', rendered in deep black paint, the present work is more idiosyncratically impactful and concise. Basquiat shows two figures, sparsely delineated, identifiable only through the near-abstract depiction of their grass skirts and abdominal muscles. They loom large on the canvas – almost life-size – but are shown devoid of detail; abstracted to the point of losing recognition. Basquiat intentionally reduces these figures in order to dehumanise them. With no individual characteristics or traits, they are generically and ironically stereotyped as 'natives'.
Basquiat’s interest in African and Oceanic culture was as erudite art historically as it was significant personally. He developed a close relationship of immense mutual respect with Robert Farris Thompson, the renowned Professor of African art at Yale. Introduced to Basquiat by the hip-hop artist Fab 5 Freddy, Thompson was wholly and immediately enamoured by Basquiat’s dramatic and informed painting style and has written about his work since, contextualising it within Post-Colonial thought. Thompson recognised the power of works such as Natives Carrying Things describing them as: “Incantations of his blackness, incantations of what he was afraid of… He’s like a classical African drummer, just translating his nervousness into art. It was as if he was trying to turn his fears into creative energy” (Robert Farris Thompson cited in: Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 249).
Commodification and commerce were also central to Basquiat’s work. He was acutely aware of his almost alchemical ability to turn paintings into money; bragging that he could have painted over a gold bar and made it more even more valuable. He was playful, making a painting in 1982 called Five Thousand Dollars which consisted of a canvas painted in two shades of brown emblazoned with nothing but its intended sale value written in simple letters and numerals: the painting was its own price tag. The present work is similarly direct and is suffused with a palpable sense of colonial commerce. The food and salt being carried by the so-called ‘natives’ are packaged for sale and borne forth. The art historian Leonard Emmherling has written about the thematic links between food and commerce in Basquiat’s practice: “He does much with words for foods, chemical substances, and metals. The S, which represents Superman whenever it appears within a triangular logo and otherwise stands for the old tag SAMO, also stands in for ‘salt’. A 1981 drawing shows nothing more than the word ‘Milk’ emblazoned with a copyright sign. This drawing, also a kind of radical poesy, combines a staple food with the claim of control over its distribution and the consequent ability to draw a profit from it… Milk seems to be associated with the lyrics of a song that Basquiat often listened to, ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ by Don Was, with the immortal line: ‘Man needs milk, so he owns a million cows’” (Leonhard Emmerling, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1960 - 1988, New York 2003, p. 46).
Despite its sparse compositional style, Natives Carrying Things is dense with cultural inference and art-historical import. It is a direct and emblematic work that distils the essence of Basquiat’s oeuvre. In its powerful command of form and subject, we understand the sheer impact of the artist’s depictive force. In the words of curator Diego Cortez, “[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand ‘shake’. The figure is electronic-primitive-comic” (Diego Cortez cited in: Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 1996, p. 160).
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