When Basquiat went to Africa

In 1988, Basquiat traveled to Cote d'Ivoire, anticipating "very unsophisticated" Africans would see his art. That's not what happened.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in Cote d'Ivoire in 1988.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, the first American artist of African descent to achieve international stardom, often referenced Africa or the African diaspora in his work. Take, for example, 1983′s “The Nile” (a painting that featured nods to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Nile and the Nuba in Sudan) and “Gold Griot” (1984). So recently when I found a copy of Phoebe Hoban’s biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art — first published in 1998 by Viking — lying around the house, I was curious to read about Basquait’s relationship with the continent. But I also wondered if Basquiat (born in Brooklyn, New York, and the son of a Haitian immigrant father and Puerto Rican mother) ever visited there.

The book, despite its “national bestseller” status and reviews in high-brow, mainstream US media outlets (reviewed herehere and here) focuses on the tawdry details of Basquiat’s life (sex, drugs, and more sex and drugs) and is written in a sensationalist style. Nevertheless, it does gives an adequate account of what the art world in 1980s New York City was like, especially about “the condescension and subtle racism” of Basquiat’s patrons.

But back to my interest. Basquiat, it seems, only traveled to the African continent once: an August 1986 trip for a show the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger had organized at the French Cultural Institute in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire. Hogan spends a few pages describing the visit. “It was Basquiat’s first and last trip to Africa,” writes Hoban. Bischofberger apparently had warned Basquiat (who was accompanied by his girlfriend Jennifer Goode) “… not to be disappointed that there were paved streets and skyscrapers in Abidjan, not just people living in primitive huts.” Writes Hoban:

‘He [Basquait] was hoping that very unsophisticated African people would see his show,’ said Bischofberger. ‘But everyone was invited there by the government, and there were three or four of the most famous artists in the country, and people who had been trained in Paris. It was not the man in the street who got to see Jean-Michel’s work.’

Despite this, Basquiat “enjoyed” meeting local artists–Hoban, for affect, uses the term “indigenous.”

These artists, however, “… turned out to be more influenced by Western art than he had anticipated.” Then writes Hoban,

After the show, the group took a car trip through the countryside, to a tribe (sic) in Korhogo. ‘Jean-Michel was smoking so much pot, I wasn’t sure the chauffeur would be able to stay on the road,’ says Bischofberger. His wife, YiYo, took a lot of pictures. ‘The only thing you saw of black people was their eyes in the evening,’ she recalls.

Later in the book Hoban briefly describes Basquiat’s friendship with an Ivorian artist Outtara [Hoban does not provide a first name] who he had met met on a trip to Paris. They had planned to visit Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, in August 1988. Traveling with Kevin Bray, “a young video director who had befriended Jean-Michel,” they would “… go to Outtara’s village for a ritual cleansing. Outtara had arranged with the local shamans (sic) to perform a ceremony that would cure him of his addiction.”

But a few days later Basquiat was found dead in his apartment. Hoban–prone to drama (and what one reviewer described as her “Hollywood rendition of black culture”)–writes about how Outtara (already in Abidjan) received the news of Basquiat’s death. Some of reads like 19th century anthropology:

Outtara … at first though the news of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s death was a hoax, that Basquiat had staged a cynical ‘publicity stunt.’ When the news registered, he informed the shamans (sic) who who were waiting to cure Basquiat, ‘They did the ceremony for the dead,’ says Outtara. ‘It takes place at night, and involves an animal sacrifice. It’s related to voodoo. They wore masks, and prayed and did mystic dances around the fire all night long.’ As Gerard Basquiat [his father] was claiming his son’s body in the city morque, the African magic men were releasing his spirit in an ancient rite.

Basquiat died in New York City on August 12, 1988.

* This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Leo Africanus, a previous incarnation of this blog.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.