The other day as I was looking for some Basquiat inspiration, I came across this article about his artistic influences, “John-Michel Basquiat: The Afrofuturistic and His Art: Part I – Cosmic Slop and George Clinton’s Afro-Futurism. One part struck me the most, especially we discuss appropriation and often the lack of social credit given to black influencers:
Art historians gush over his white artistic influences: Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly and Franz Kline figure prominently. No argument here. The western art tradition, jealously guarded by a ‘high art’ priesthood, had to justify Basquiat’s membership. Basquiat, no dummy, wanted fame.
Celebrity required cultural legitimacy, an artistic heritage defined by the western art canon. His first dealer, Annina Nosei, helped to fashion his art pedigree (fig. 2). Basquiat was complicit in this action. “Picasso” writes Dick Hebridge, could afford to leave the marketing and manufacturing of the iconic self to future generations.” Not so for Basquiat. His blackness remained an issue. Luca Marensi writes: “The use of some imagery, specifically black or African, leaves no trace that would allow an uninformed viewer to suppose the painter is black.”
From this past year alone, I can think of several instances of how white influence is often presented as more legitimate than black influence. For example, I immediately thought of the incident earlier this year when Vogue implied that Lupita N’yongo’s Met Gala hair inspiration was Audrey Hepburn and she had to correct them by saying it was inspired by traditional African-based hairstyles.
Constantly, I am reminded of how mainstream society is inconsiderate when it comes to black influence and contributions. Whether it is within or without our cultures; it is automatically assumed that another group or the dominate culture influenced us, not the other way around! Back to hair, I went to the MoCADA Braids exhibition last week featuring the awe-inspiring braid designs of Shani Crowe and I was reminded that this practice of braiding is part of hundreds of years of cultures and traditions passed down to us. That these designs held information — whether it was maps and messages to direct us to freedom or ancient fractal patterns that reflected the patterns of the universe.
I don’t want thousands of years of heritage reduced down to the latest fashion trends or new discovery that implies that these styles just popped out of nowhere, much like how conrows were treated with Bo Derek or the Kardashians with conrows and bantu knots.
And it is not just hair, but this is pervasive throughout mainstream culture from the obscuring of West African masks influence of Picasso to the ignorant who claim that white people contributed the most to civilization or that we wouldn’t have civilization without them, as if people of color have not had our own cultures, civilizations and inventions thousands of years before Europe existed as it is today.
But when our vast and rich histories are not taught in schools and other institutions, this is what happens. Much like the black drops put into the white paint in Ellison’s Invisible Man, our presence, the interdependence and exchange of various cultures are easily made invisible.
I will leave you with this quote from the Basquiat article that emphasized how Basquiat was influenced by the black cultures in which he grew up:
Basquiat’s work took for its inspiration subjects that were absent from the walls of traditional museums. It explored African culture and celebrated the black cultural heritage. It took inspiration from modern black urban life. It celebrated historical figures and heroes of the black community. National issues relative to the black community inspired his work as well.