Basquiat was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He lived in New York from his birth in 1960 until his death in 1988 and was always fully immersed in the city’s culture. His work rocketed to success during the 1980s as a part of the Neo-expressionism movement. As a result, his art features the recognisable human body, as well as other objects, in a commonly abstract manner with rough lines and vibrant colours, reflecting the violent emotions and unrest of 1980s New York.
Modern inequalities, exploitation, and the legacy of imperialism are at the forefront of Basquiat’s artwork. Works such as Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983), explore the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The piece Taxi, 45th/Broadway (1984–85) reveals Basquiat’s personal experience of attempting to hail a cab in New York. He depicts a Black man as a slim, stick figure, fading into the dark background of the painting. This reflects the experience of Black marginalisation and systemic abuse in the 1980’s.
The discrimination that Basquiat highlights is still a very real and present issue, not just in New York, but in the world. His artwork is still politically relevant and speaks to marginalised populations. Yet, this relevance is exploited through the capitalist culture in America, and Basquiat has been commodified posthumously.
Not only are his paintings being sold for record-breaking prices (Untitled, 1982 was sold for $110.5 million in 2017) but they have also been mass-printed onto T-shirts, mugs, and key rings for brands such as Gap, Amazon, and Uniqlo.
Whilst this new market breakthrough could be seen as a sign of Basquiat’s cultural cementation into history as a captivating artist, I feel it is in fact an exploitation of a Black individual. The political heart of Basquiat’s work has been ripped out. The radical voice has been silenced, and instead, Basquiat is being used as an ‘edgy’ iconograph of the ‘cool’ 1980’s New York era. There is a deep and tragic irony in how, an artist who dedicated his short life to curating a powerful voice advocating for equality, has become the exoticized and exploited Black man in America. His legacy is being obliterated by capitalist greed.
The printing of Basquiat’s work on T-shirts destroys the purpose of his work. I would even argue that it erases the Black man behind the art and silences his strong voice that called for equality.