- Interview by
- Drew Thompson
- Sean Jacobs
Countless exhibitions have tried to present the life and work of the artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, since he passed away in 1988. His works have captured the public imagination, and command top dollar on the art markets. Basquiat’s celebrity status is renowned—from his affiliation with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, to moguls and entrepreneurs such as Jay-Z owning his work—yet little is known about his personal life, including his family.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©” is an attempt by Jean-Michel’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, to share a more personal and nuanced perspective on Basquiat’s life and work as an artist. Designed by the architect Sir David Adjaye, the exhibition recreates Jean-Michel’s own childhood in Brooklyn during the 1960s and 1970s. The presentation of unseen works also offers the chance to consider the influence of African art on Basquiat’s visual sensibilities.
AIAC founder-editor, Sean Jacobs, and contributing editor, Drew Thompson, spoke to Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux to learn more about the exhibition’s aims. The conversation touched on Basquiat’s travels to Côte d’Ivoire, his sporting interests, and growing up in Brooklyn’s vibrant Haitian and Puerto Rican communities.
What was the story that you wanted to tell about your brother, Jean-Michel with “Jean Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©”?
Up until now, it was almost presented as if Jean-Michel just rose from the ashes. And the reality is, he had a family which had an incredible impact on the man he became, as well as the cultural, and musical influences that he had in our home and the influences that he got from both our parents. So some of that is missing from the [prevailing] narrative about Jean-Michel. Lisane and I took over his estate in 2013. Our dad [Gerard Basquiat] had been managing the estate for over 25 years and brought it to where it was at that point. But actually going to exhibitions and having [a voice] was difficult for [our dad] as he had lost his son. So Lisane and I thought it was important for us to have a different approach and kind of step out from our private lives and give some more context and more narrative to Jean-Michel’s story.
What has surprised you about all the exhibitions about Jean-Michel that came before this one?
I don’t think there’s anything about the exhibitions before this one that has surprised me necessarily. I think it is quite profound that Jean-Michel’s work has been displayed in some of the greatest museums and institutions in the world. And I wouldn’t say that that surprises me, but I will say that there is incredible joy about that. What has been surprising is the amount of interest in all things Jean-Michel, and the fact that people will line up at museums and galleries just to see his work, to experience him and his art. The people that we encounter here at the exhibition in New York City travel from all over the world and when we’re in the space, we often have people walk up and say, “I’ve traveled here from wherever. And we came here just to see this show” or “We’re leaving [New York City] and we wanted to make sure that we got a chance to experience this work before we go.” So, that has been a real joy.
I just want to add one more thing. Jeanine and I, and our stepmother [Nora Fitzpatrick], have taken this opportunity to share a version of Jean-Michel, or an expanded version of Jean-Michel, that quite frankly cannot and could never be told by a museum or by some other institution, just by virtue of the fact that we are his family. So only we can tell that story.
Can you talk about the decision to collaborate with Ghanaian architect David Adjaye? Was that a deliberate decision? How did Adjaye’s experiences in designing museums and exhibitions inform your own thinking about how to tell Jean-Michel’s life story?
One of the things that was important for us, considering the recent climate, was that we employ as many women and people of color for the show and we went out and looked at different architecture firms that would align with our vision. And I think we met with about four and we had two final candidates. And as soon as we got on Zoom with David Adjaye, instantly, we felt he had exactly what it was that we were looking for. And that happened within minutes. And so just kind of having looked at some of his previous installations and the beautiful work that he did with the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, we felt that we had chosen the right person for the job. And working with him and his team has been amazing because they had been spot on with a similar vision from the beginning.
And it was also important to us that we have the best of the best. And it just so happens that Adjaye is incredible to work with, an incredible partner and really creative, and was able to really bring (the exhibition) to life for us.
That’s great. At the beginning of the exhibition we get a sense of Jean-Michel’s biography, his early life as being, and I quote, “… profoundly connected to the various influences that informed his identity.” Could you say more about this, especially as it relates to Jean-Michel’s identity as a black person who identified or had roots in Haiti through your dad and to Puerto Rico through your mom?
A person is really the sum of all the experiences that they had before them. And so Jean-Michel being a young black man in the early sixties, growing up in Brooklyn with a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother [Matilda Andrades Basquiat], our father was our primary caretaker. And growing up in a household where there was music and there was really rich culture and also being introduced to and exposed to art and culture and all of that. Those things really did profoundly inform his identity and who he was because he got to see his life through both the lens of the experience that he was having in his own world and also through the lens of art or through different types of movies and music. And so it really rounded out the ways that he looked at the world. And then at that time, it wasn’t typical [in New York City] to be the child of immigrant parents from the Caribbean. And so it kind of gave him a very different experience: in school, with friends, and then back in the neighborhood. [Basquiat was born in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and grew up in nearby Boerum Hill and the Flatbush section of Brooklyn as well as briefly in Puerto Rico – Ed.]
Did Jean-Michel ever explicitly identify or have affinities with Puerto Rico or the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City? And, related to that, what has been the reception of Jean-Michel and his legacy, his art, and achievements in either the Haitian or Puerto Rican communities here?
Jean-Michel’s art and the things that he created are, in essence, his journal. And you can see throughout his work how connected he was to the Brooklyn experience. You know, there’s a work that’s not in our show, “Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump,” which is a very kind of Brooklyn story. But then you can also see a lot of reference to the diaspora [in his work] and to his deep interest and connection to his black roots. I mean, the [use of the] crown [in a number of his works] and the courage and tenacity that it takes for a young man who at the time wore dreadlocks in his hair—which was not a common thing at the time—to put a crown on his own head. So many of his works, in particular the drawings and the works on paper, talk about colonialism, Africa, and him as a black man, as well as about atrocities that have happened in the world … But also some of the celebrations that he chose to connect to about being a black man.
On that: I am curious, with your dad being a first-generation immigrant, Jean-Michel must have known how Haiti is perceived in the African world as the first free republic in the Western Hemisphere. Was any of that talked about in the house? I’m thinking of how one develops one’s identity, right? He’s growing up in New York City, where there are many identities, immigrant identities, black immigrant identities. And I’m assuming your dad, who in photographs comes across as a very proud man…that obviously Jean-Michel inherits some of that from him?
We do. Yeah, we know where we come from. We know that we came, or that our dad came to this country. I’m very proud that having lived through Papa Doc Duvalier, we always knew that we came from the first country in the Caribbean to say no to imperialism. [Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971 when he died and was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, who was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986. The Duvalier regimes, which had the support of the US, were notorious for repression and violence against ordinary Haitians. – Ed.] And so we are also very deeply rooted in both Puerto Rican culture through our mom, both back in Puerto Rico and being Nuyorican and all that means in New York. At the same time, our dad was clear about what it means to be a Haitian as well as a Haitian man in this country. What it took to make the decision that my father took, that he was going to come to this country and make it and then to be a single parent as a Haitian man, there are a lot of firsts in our family.
Yeah, I was just going to just add a little more with regards to my father and the stories he told us. There were a lot of childhood stories that he spoke of: the cocoa trees, the sound of the frogs at night, and him playing soccer as a young boy. But there also were the horrors that he experienced with Duvalier. He was able to leave prior to really being affected by that, but the rest of his family pretty much had to flee as a result of the [political] climate and what was going on in the country. So I think there was a kind of bittersweet connection between what he grew up with and what ultimately transpired in Haiti, so he left, kind of carrying that as well. Yeah.
It was also very difficult for our dad because he didn’t go back to Haiti. So for him, being here in this country [the US] and really having a love for Haiti, taught me about the beauty of Haiti and to not go back for political reasons.
So your dad experienced New York City partly as an exile?
I don’t know that he was an exile, but he didn’t feel comfortable going back to the country.
We were very fascinated by the trip that Jean-Michel took to Cote d’Ivoire in 1987. In the exhibit, there’s a display of objects and artworks, keepsakes that he brought back with him. Did Jean-Michel ever talk about that trip? How he planned the trip, whether he planned to feature some of the objects he brought back in his work, or whether he was inspired by the trip or the objects. What did he tell you about that trip? Did he talk about it? His impressions of Côte d’Ivoire? Can you remember what he felt before he went and after he came back?
Jean-Michel didn’t go into the deep conversations about the visit to Cote d’Ivoire. I do know that it was a life-changing experience for him, having an exhibition there and how that was set up and created for him. And he did have the intention of going back because he felt that he had connected back to his roots, as well as feeling very much—I don’t want to say at peace—but he felt he felt a strong connection there and that it was a grounding. A grounding. Yeah. You know, that’s a good word for it. He didn’t specifically speak about the works of art that he brought back and whether or not he was going to use them in his work, because that really wasn’t his process, his process was really: I see something and if it gels with me or if I knew, if it speaks to me then I apply it to my painting. It wasn’t really like he had discussions on the work that he was going to create. So, as you can see in the exhibition, he was deeply inspired by the objects that were around him.
What do you want people to take away regarding Jean-Michel’s relationship to the African continent and the African diaspora? And how would you like audiences on the continent to perhaps engage with his work?
I think one of the things that was really exciting about the curation of this exhibition was the fact that Jeanine and I, as we went through these works…we’d see a phrase, and then we’d go and look it up to see what he was actually referring to. And in a lot of ways, his work really wound up being a bit of a history lesson for us. And it was a history lesson that one could take a look at from a global perspective to see how humans and citizens relate to each other and how political structures and class structures come together and both engage and are, and also sometimes exist in conflict. So what I would love for audiences to choose to think about is just the history. One of the things that is so fascinating about Jean-Michel, as an artist, is that he was able to both engage in what was happening in the immediacy of his life, but then also to take that, to use kind of a cliche term, that “20,000 foot view,” an aerial view of the world and a map of human beings interacting with each other. So, I would love for African audiences to engage in this work by really taking a look at that and really taking a look at the ways that we relate to each other and the ways that we as people of color, you know, relate to each other all around the world.
I’m very interested in the relationship between sports and popular culture and was taken by Jean-Michel’s interest in boxing and athletics, about Sugar Ray Robinson and Jesse Owens and so on. A lot has been written by art critics and art blogs about what those works represent. But I’m just curious about something they never tell us: was he a sports fan? Specifically, was he a fan of New York sports teams? Did he go to watch professional baseball games? Did he follow sports? Did he care about boxing as a fan?
I don’t know that Jean-Michel was a sports fan per se. He did watch boxing with our dad. Our dad was a boxing fan. And so when we were young, there was a channel or a show that came on, I believe on Saturday night called Boxeo, it was like Channel 41, 47, and it was Saturday night boxing. And every Saturday night we would sit down with our dad and watch boxing. There’s actually a painting in the exhibition called “Boxeo.” And we have to believe that that is an homage to that time when we would do that with our dad. With regards to all of the other sports figures that are mentioned in the exhibition and that Jean-Michel painted, he just wanted to make sure that he was paying homage to black people in general, you know, to his sports heroes and to his musical heroes. He loved Charlie Parker, which I think everyone knows. And, you know, he just wanted to honor that. He had a shoutout for Sugar Ray Leonard who I believe was one of my dad’s favorites.
Aside from Muhammad Ali, of course, Jesse Owens was also one who was an incredible sportsperson. And I think that Jean-Michel also just highlighted those sports figures that had risen from difficult circumstances and situations in their sports fields such as Jack Johnson.
To what extent has the pandemic or the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the social protest that we’re seeing in this moment impacted the exhibition, in terms of the themes or tone or your thinking about how to tell the story of Jean-Michel?
I don’t know that it went into our thinking about how to tell the story. It certainly coincided with when we started having conversations about this project, back in 2017. But it just wasn’t the right time because, for us, it was very important that we placed our full agency in this project and that we executive produced it and did it in the way that we wanted to do it. And in 2017, that just wasn’t possible for us. And then, during the summer of 2020, and after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and some other things that were going on in the country at the time, including the pandemic, it was Jeanine who said: It is probably a good time for us to start talking about this … Jean-Michel was so much an artist who honored people of color. And because he was a man who really knew and had confidence in who he was as a man and as a black man and so Jean-Michel’s work is always timely. Thirty-three years later, you can take his works and apply them to the very same things that unfortunately continue to happen. So the timing of this was perfect. It would have been perfect at any time, but I think it was especially perfectly timed. I can’t think of a better word …
… Yeah. It was very relevant to what was going on at the time and what continues to go on. And also a message to people of color, as well as people who are not of color that you know we’re okay, this is world history and this is what happens and the way people treat each other. And so put your crown on your head. Straighten your crown and know who you are and let’s pay homage to each other.
That’s a beautiful way to end things, with that phrase [Put your crown on your head]. Thank you very much for taking the time to chat to us.
Thank you so much.