Barbican Centre, London
Basquiat x Video Jam offers a fitting finale to the Barbican’s Boom for Real exhibition, a retrospective documenting of the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In response to the exhibition’s cultural impact, an international roster of artists and filmmakers unite to produce an evening of audiovisual acrobatics, akin to Basquiat’s own haphazard manner of painting.
From the innovative soundscapes of Young Fathers to the Afrofuturistic dynamism of Ibibio Sound, the defiant gestures of black resistance to the urban skylines of lonely neighbourhoods, these artists – through film and music – skillfully captured the emotions and painful circumstance that coloured Basquiat’s life.
The highly experimental production still left room for interpretation, refusing categorisation by spanning genre and style. Of course this was especially apt, since Basquiat by nature disrupted binaries. A biracial, bisexual graffiti-cum-neo-expressionist, existing at the epicentre of a celebrity stardom, sullied by bitter racial prejudice. His fervent energy, no doubt a byproduct of him not belonging, was successfully channelled by the artists of Basquiat x Video Jam. Certainly, all six acts dared us to engage with the political and racial overtones of Basquiat’s oeuvre.
The souped-up hip-hop funk that interweaved itself into Basquiat’s career, first as the antiestablishment graffitist SAMO©, then as the close friend and collaborator of rapper Fab 5 Freddy, is the source of inspiration behind Act 1. Neo-soul rappers LayFullStop’s and Woddy Green’s biting bars of black resistancedelivered with Brummie twang were the perfect accompaniment to visuals contemplating police brutality. Basquiat, viewed one way, was pioneering #BLACKLIVESMATTER three decades prior to its birth; his Defacement painting, a reaction to the death of his peer Michael Stewart at the hands of the police, is the basis of Hayley Elizabeth Anderson’s film. Here, the rising indie cinema star uses a double frame film portrait to show on one side Basquiat (or is it Stewart?) and on the other, scenes of black love.
Act 5’s film Fetish is a powerful celebration of black liberation. Vulnerability, commodity, sexualisation and violence exist at the apex of being black in America – particularly if you’re stopped in the street. Fetish features a naked black man stalking the city, an image that both cites this struggle and overrides it. He is stamping, dancing and screaming, even brandishing the black power fist aside signs that glare ‘WARNING security camera used’ and ‘NO STANDING’, thus paying homage to a SAMO© tendency to question existing norms. Elsewhere, Young Fathers’ enigmatic presence is seen and felt: smoky vocals sit atop an ominous drumbeat as they demand to know: “Am I the black cunt you’ve been chasing for years?”
The evening’s highlight, however, came midway through, with Ibibio Sound Machine soundtracking Gabrielle Ledet’s and Jack Wedge’s film Fishbowl. Here, electro-infused Nigerian highlife accompanied a vivid animation to paint a tapestry reminiscent of Basquiat’s high-chrome backdrops. It is with Eno William’s Ibibio tongue that Basquiat’s lost soul is anchored home to Africa.
Fishbowl is only matched by ruffmercy and Danalogue’s closing animation ‘88 where Basquiat’s bebop idioms, caricatural drawings and epigrams of heroism are re-ignited. Whilst Basquiat’s penchant for colour, his registering of its emotional depth, is captured. The scrawled figures of ‘88, transfixing as they are, seem to jump out at us. Meanwhile jazz hands and composers join forces; Danalogue, Idris Rahman, Sarathy Korwar and Leafcutter, provide a unique accompaniment. Their raucous sax is injected with 80s synth and a sonic drum beat that leans towards psychedelic.
Once again, the racial struggle at the heart of Basquiat’s art is mobilised; ‘88 coins key phrases and SAMO© tropes including ‘N.W.A’, ‘nothing to be gained here’, ‘negro’ and ‘police’. And just like that, we are coaxed into siding with SAMO© and sneering at the racial paradoxes of ‘highbrow culture’, which serves to only ‘tolerate ethnic art out of guilt’.