Jean Basquiat was brought into this world in 1960 and grew up in New York. His mother was Afro-Puerto Rican, his father was Haitian, and both were middle-class citizens. He didn’t try to keep his background from the public and did not exhibit shame or the need to reverse negative stereotypes about African-Americans, but rather publicized details of his life in paintings.
He did not try to involve himself in the black political arena because he didn’t feel welcome in the upper-class black art communities. Although he didn’t become involved in politics concerning African Americans, he certainly did criticize and make statements in his works that revolted against the mistreatment of his race and others as well. He died at the age of twenty-seven after painting professionally for only seven years.
He repeated themes in his paintings, portraying his ideas innovatively and intellectually. His paintings at first glance seem to have a primitive style, but the symbolism he uses and his chaotic, discordant technique merely enhances the impact of the message he tries to send.
His use of words, phrases, arrows, symbols, and scribbles are the reason for much of this discord; but perhaps he felt as if his message would not be heard unless he made use of them.
His messages are bold and defiant; at times, his paintings almost express a sort of anger and contempt towards the human condition. It seems that his works suggest a deep-rooted hostility toward the exploitation and corruption of the innocent for capital gain through the use of religion, taking lands from natives, and excessive industrialization and commercialism at the expense of those who have no power to reverse any undesired effect. The placement of words and symbols seems at first to be unimportant, and only after looking deeper can one reach any conclusions.
In his 1984 untitled painting, he uses the phrase SUN GOD/TRICKSTER which parallels this idea; his use of the word trickster in relation to God brings about this same skepticism and contempt for the use of religion to manipulate and exploit people. It could also mean that exploitation runs deeper than a means through which to acquire profit, but that it goes as far as to manipulate the beliefs and religions of people as well.
In his 1983 untitled painting (QUALITY?), he combines the phrases “Rest in Peace” and “In God We Trust.” He manipulates the phrase that is seen on United States currency in the combining of the two to form the expression “REST IN PEACE WHO TRUST?” leaving out any mention of God. This could point to questioning of trust in God by replacing this with the word WHO.
The combining of these phrases implies death or morality (indicated by the cliché the phrase ‘rest in peace’ commonly associated with death and the replacement of God with ‘who’). This death or corruption, according to Basquiat, is brought about by the exploitation and tainting of pure ideals and excessive greed (from the use of the phrase on our currency). This skepticism of God, representation of God, or representatives of God is a recurring theme in Basquiat’s paintings.
Basquiat points to corruption and exploitation in the conquering of lands and natives for the purposes of greed. In his 1983 untitled painting (Quality?), the words “ORIGINAL THEIVES FROM THE MAYFLOWER,” appear in bold black lettering. The general theme of this painting is capitalism, and its negative effects on the human condition, so perhaps Basquiat traces the roots of America’s capitalism to the Pilgrims from the Mayflower and other early settlers who assumed superiority and took over land that was not theirs.
Another reference to the stealing of lands from natives can be seen in the painting Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari. At the bottom of the painting reads “I WON’T EVEN MENTION GOLD,” and an arrow points to various spellings of “CORTEZ.” Hernando Coronado Cortez was a man who went in search of the ‘West Indies’ to find cities made of gold that was rumored to have been seen in the ‘New World.’ While this painting focuses mainly on the Black laborers and how they were exploited for profits in colonialization, this ‘oh–and by the way’ statement seems to say that there are many examples of how native people are taken advantage of due to greed.
The Doctrine of Discover was practiced by European countries who were in search of new lands; this doctrine held that those who are conquered in a new land need not be negotiated with unless they are Christian. This belief–and the fact that it led discoverers to believe that those who were Christian were inherent of higher standing than those who weren’t–led to conflict and the mistreatment of those who were natives of these ‘new lands’.
Because those who Basquiat refers to in his paintings were obviously not of the Christian faith, they were abused, stolen from, and violated. This also ties in with his contempt for the use of religion to manipulate and abuse.
Basquiat hints to his feeling that corruption and abuse id directly linked with greed and capitalism. In his 1983 untitled painting, he makes use of consumeristic symbols and concepts to imply that these are the source of the mistreatment and manipulation of pure and innocent peoples and ideals.
Going back to the phrase “REST IN PEACE WHO TRUST?”, the fact that the phrase that is seen on the currency in the United States is manipulated into a dubious question and has intentionally been left with no mention of God could imply that the death of morality as mentioned earlier is at the hands of money and capitalism. Basquiat could be suggesting that the United States is corrupt and deteriorating due to the very capitalistic nature of our society.
In the same painting, there are words in both red and black which are dominant and seem to represent the already corrupt, tainted, and manipulated, and there are smaller and less threatening words in black print. In red is a crown which is directly above the words “MASS SLUMS,” and an arrow pointing from the words “MASS SLUMS” to the words “PUBLIC GHETTO.”
This points to the colonialization theme that is evident in Basquiat’s painting Natives Carrying Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari. This again suggests the abuse of innocent lives for profitable means. This also implies that profit is made for those who are in authority positions at the expense of others; the common stereotype is that the ghettos, projects, and slums are inhabited by minorities–predominately African and Mexican Americans–so perhaps Basquait is trying to say that even today in the United States the government still exploits the ‘underclass.’
The smaller words in this painting seem to resemble ideas and things that have been brought about by capitalism or regions and things that have been affected by it. For example, the word DISNEY appears with the copyright symbol. The Disney Corporation is supposed to be one that brings joy to children and provides suitable entertainment for today’s youth. It, however, is ridden with consumeristic ideals that are ignored; Disney World and Disney Land, clothing, bedroom decorations and furniture, and toys that are used for profit and not intended solely for the purpose of pleasing children are perfect examples.
Another word in ‘fine print’ is HARLEM. This could be in reference to his love of jazz music and his feeling that even that has been tainted by materialism and capitalism. In his 1984 Untitled painting, he centers his work around the boxed phrase “GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL” and uses these same consumeristic symbols with everyday things like colors and the miracle of birth.
Below those words are seemingly random sketches that resemble blueprints or construction plans with a cat in front of them. To the left of these ‘blueprints’ on a yellowish-orange background are a number of items placed together in disarray. Again in this portion of the painting, it appears to be construction plans, calculations, measurements, chemical compounds, and blueprints in the backdrop. Towards the top of this technical background is a Christmas ornament on its side and the boxed words YELLOW AND GREEN.
In the top left portion of the painting is a heavy-set aboriginal woman giving birth with the title “ABORIGINAL GENERATIVE” This is a statement voicing the opinion that even the purest of ideas and the most innocent concepts are manipulated for greed and profit. The use of trademark and copyright symbols in conjunction with everyday concepts, ideas, and objects such as colors and even childbearing insists that innocence and the natural world is being advantageously exploited through GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL projects and plans in exchange for capital gain.
The only obvious consumeristic symbols in Basquait’s Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari are the dollar signs that replace the s’s in the words “TUSK$” and “$KIN$”. These are the symbols that point to the Black laborer in the painting being viewed as a commodity. As discussed earlier, the missionaries and poachers in this painting are one and the same, so by using the dollar signs in these words, it reinforces the idea that the laborer seen in the picture is the ‘animal’ that is being hunted and used for profit.
Basquiat’s use of monetary and capitalistic symbols in association with everyday objects seems to say that all things and all aspects of society have been tainted, manipulated, and exploited in order to satisfy the greed of those in authority positions. They appear to say that global and United States industrialization does not serve anyone’s best interests except those who are doing the exploiting and industrializing. He seems to be saying that it serves no other purpose than to extend corruption, manipulation, deceit, exploitation, and abuse to that which would exist and thrive without the intrusions of capitalism and greed.