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Ekow Eshun: black like Basquiat

Ekow Eshun: black like Basquiat

By: Ekow Eshun

Lately I’ve been asking myself the question, how does it feel to be black? Specifically, that is, in a period marked by unprecedented visibility and perilous vulnerability for black people. An era of dizzying artistic achievement, from Steve McQueen and Kendrick Lamar to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And an era of racist oppression and murder, from the streets of Ferguson to a church full of worshippers in Charleston.

The answer to that question is always personal and collective at the same time. It’s always about our individual experiences of race and what, en masse, an accumulated body of stories can tell us about who we are, and the time we’re living in.

Here, for starters, is a story about Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat was interviewed in his Manhattan studio by Mark Miller, a professor of art history. Basquiat was 21 at the time and on the cusp of fame. There were upcoming shows in LA and Zurich. A glowing profile in the art bible Artforum had dubbed him “the radiant child”. But success also meant contending with the prejudice of the white art world. In the words of one critic, he was “a talentless hustler”, famous only because of “his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal”.

The interview with Miller is a telling example of what Basquiat was up against.

Basquiat is filmed in front of one of his dense, richly allusive paintings. As Miller looks on, he points out the enormous range of art historical references embedded in the picture as well as the nods to pop culture icons like Walt Disney.

But Miller seems baffled by Basquiat’s sophistication. Peering at the canvas, he wonders aloud if there’s any evidence of real artistic intention on show. “Is it just spontaneous juxtaposition? It’s just a series of images. Is there any logic here?”

Basquiat’s face flickers with anger and in his eyes there’s a dawning disappointment as he realises that for Miller the quality of art is secondary to the colour of his skin.

Blithely, Miller persists. He stabs at a finger at the canvas. Is the painting, he ponders, “some sort of primal expressionism?” And finally Basquiat snaps. “Like an ape? A primate?” When Miller stammers, “I don’t know…” Basquiat doesn’t let him off the hook. “You said it, you said it.”

It’s an excruciating exchange. Soon after, Basquiat walks out of shot and doesn’t come back. The interview is over.

Watching the film of that encounter 35 years later, I find it hard not to put myself in Basquiat’s place. I’m no genius like him, of course. But you don’t have to be a great artist to be patronised or discriminated against in the way that he was in that interview.  

You just have to be black.

In fact, it’s impossible to grow up black in America or Britain without facing similar types of experience.

Over the years, I’ve got used to security guards trailing me around a store when I’m out shopping or to women clutching their handbags a bit tighter when I sit beside them on the tube. I’m not surprised to be mistaken for a courier when I turn up at an office for a meeting or to be stopped for extra questioning at passport control when I land at an airport.

In isolation, any of these encounters can be shrugged off as minor annoyances. But collectively, they reveal a pattern of prejudice that’s impossible to ignore.

This is one way that it feels to be black – to see too clearly, too painfully, the latticework of bigotries that would hold us back from our ambitions and desires.  

It was WEB DuBois, the great philosopher of race, who coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the sensation that we know too well, as black people, of “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” For DuBois, writing in 1903, double consciousness was the defining characteristic of black experience. It was the bitter proof that we would always be shut off from the main body of society, doomed to spend our lives looking from the outside in.

Yet, in thinking today about how it feels to be black, I’d argue the opposite is true. The dual vision that DuBois describes is no curse. It is our inheritance. Our beautiful birthright. A double consciousness prompts us to view the world with all the depth and complexity of a Basquiat painting. And to understand that the bigotry that surrounds us need not shackle us; that even as we’re routinely stereotyped as criminal or hypersexual, as primitive or violent, we remain free to define ourselves on our own terms, with all the nuance and contradiction we might choose to summon to that task.  

Think, for a moment of the power and grace of Strange Fruit – the way that pain and sorrow are transmuted into something fragile and defiant and heart-breakingly beautiful, because of, not despite, the subject matter of the song. Blood on the leaves, yes. And I am moved to tears listening to Billie Holiday sing those words. But the strength of the song, its pure, undimmable artistry, also makes me lift my head up high.

To my mind, this is the best and worst of times to be black.

The worst because of the white supremacist ideology of the Trump administration. The worst because of the 44 per cent rise in hate crimes in Britain since Brexit. Because the unchecked growth of the prison-industrial complex in America means one in three black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. And because the list of African-Americans killed in recent years because of their race – Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray amongst them – only continues to grow.

Yet even against that bleak backdrop, beauty and artistry still flourish.

It was always the case that our writers and poets, our singers and our painters, could conjure work that captured the breadth of black experience: the arc of history from slavery to civil rights; a profound connection to the past and a fervent belief in the future. The ranks of those passed but never forgotten runs deep. Zora Neale Hurston, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, Basquiat, J-Dilla, Prince... and on it goes.

But it’s surely worth noting that something vivid and special might also be happening right now, at this very moment. In the past couple of years, black popular culture has embraced a new complexity. Our brightest stars and our newest names are making art and music and literature that runs against the grain of expectation and announces itself impatient with the status quo. In the best works of today the personal and the political are intertwined, so that a song or an image might be grounded in intimate, individual experience, while grappling with overarching themes of race and power, gender and sexuality, and at the same time reaching toward artistic goals of beauty and sadness and hope.

The dense field of references, the games of misdirection, the historical reach, the love of juxtaposition and elision that once made Basquiat such a perplexing figure for the mainstream are now commonplace characteristics in black culture. They are what now sound like and looks like.

How does it feel to be black, today? Just take a look at the some of the dazzling creative work produced in the past year alone, all of it so rich and ambitious in scope, so intimate and heartfelt in delivery: Moonlight, as crafted by Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the triumphant return-cum-final farewell of A Tribe Called Quest, the photography of Awol Erizku, the designs of Grace Wales Bonner, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Hank Willis Thomas’ super PAC, Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge, Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Gang Signs &  Prayer by Stormzy, Solange’s A Seat at the Table The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Little Simz’ Stillness in Wonderland, Donald Glover with both Atlanta and Awaken My Love, Issa Rae’s Insecure, The Life of Pablo by Kanye West, Dred Scott’s A Man was Lynched by Police Yesterday, Skepta’s Konnichiwa, Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, do you believe in more? By FKA Twigs, Kerry James Marshall’s masterly career survey show, John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the international growth of AFROPUNK, David Adjaye’s design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and on it goes. Resist, resist, resist…

This essay has been reprinted courtesy of AFROPUNK as part of its Open Letters series. For over 14 years, AFROPUNK has been defining culture in the music world; a triumph of multiculturalism, diversity and championing all races, genders, colours, creeds and tastes. As the AFROPUNK movement expands outside of its US home and into new territories, the founders have invited four intellectuals from these key regions to explore the notion of what it is to be black. Ekow Eshun is AFROPUNK's chosen writer for the UK. This essay is one of four commissioned in an attempt to balance a personal point of view and a communal take from four spaces where AFROPUNK lives in 2017.

More from Ekow Eshun: ekoweshun.com

More from AFROPUNK: afropunkfest.com/london

All images courtesy of AFROPUNK.