Legends: The Body of Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Photo from Poster Boy NYC.

Basquiat OD’d in the summer of ‘88. Much of what we know about Jean-Michel’s life surrounds his death, and his body — the pigment of it, the sex he had with it, the drugs he put into it. But the body of his work was incorporeal, moving freely about the world.

Jean-Michel grew up middle-class in Park Slope and East Flatbush. He is almost always classified as an American artist despite his mother being a black Puerto Rican and his father a Port-Au-Prince native with Ivorian roots.

By the age of 11, he could fluently speak, read and write in French, Spanish, and English, and synthesized all three into the written language coded into his paintings, manipulating the globe like a Rubik’s cube.

One of his early paintings, Arroz con Pollo, features a dark man holding out a plate of roasted chicken while a woman holds out a breast in response.


In Untitled (History of Black People) three panels depict images of the Atlantic slave trade juxtaposed with those of the Egyptian slave trade. In the center, Osiris guides a boat down the Nile under the heading EL GRAN ESPECTACULO, and the words, Esclave, Slave, Esclave are painted, then crossed out, on the right panel. “I would cross out words so you’ll see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”

His work consistently referenced narratives of Caribbean, African and American history using prismatic colors, written language and child-like, neo-expressionist bodies. “I am an artist who has been influenced by the New York environment. But I do have a cultural memory. I do not need to look for it, it exists. It is over there, in Africa. It does not mean that I have to live over there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever we are.

Basquiat took his first and last trip to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire where he befriended Ivorian painter Ouattara Watts, whose work is often compared to Jean-Michel’s. They planned a trip back to the country together for a shamanic ceremony meant to save Basquiat’s soul from addiction, but he backed out at the last minute, dying of a heroin overdose days later. Ouattara informed the shamans, who performed a ceremony for the dead instead.

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