Jean-Michel Basquiat challenged the art world in New York in the early 1980s . Now the work from the internationally recognized artist will be exhibited in Toronto’s AGO. Guest-curated by Austrian art historian and curator, Dieter Buchhart, the exhibit will feature over eighty of Basquiat’s drawings and paintings from private collections that touch upon issues regarding gender, race, identity, agency and the ongoing struggles related to the divide in power in society. The AGO’s curatorial assistant, Magdalyn Asimakis, revealed to Novella why “Now’s The Time” is important to be exhibited in Toronto.
Novella: Please discuss the name of the exhibit.
AGO: The title “Now’s the Time” was inspired by Basquiat’s 1985 work of the same title, which opens the exhibition. The work looks like a large LP record and references Charlie Parker’s 1945 track “now’s the time.” Basquiat references Parker often in his work; he admired his experimental approach to music and his success as an African American man who broke new ground in the arts. Basquiat could relate to this. The words “now’s the time” also recall Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I have a dream speech” from 1963, where he uses the phrase as a call to action. We also felt that “now’s the time” was a fitting title for the exhibition because now is the time for us to think about Basquiat’s work differently, by delving into the issues that he raised in his work and their ongoing relevance (such as: identity, racism, black history, social politics, etc.)
Novella: Who is involved in this project from the Toronto community?
AGO: There are people from the arts community such as artists Elicser Elliott, Jérôme Havre, Bushra Junaid, Curtis Talwst Santiago and Casey Mecija. As well, there are those from the academic supporting us, Christian Campbell (Poet and Professor of English at University of Toronto); Warren Crichlow (Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at York University); Julie Crooks, Rebanks Fellow (Department of World Cultures from Royal Ontario Museum); Dr. Kenneth Montague (Director of Wedge Curatorial Projects); and Rinaldo Walcott (Director of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at University of Toronto).
Novella: Why did the AGO literally feel that “now’s the time”? Why now? Is it to coincide with Black History Month?
AGO: The AGO was interested in having an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work for some time. It was not planned to coincide with Black History month but the timing worked out that way. The issues that Basquiat raised in his art are still relevant today and we wanted to initiate conversations about them that would continue beyond Black History Month, especially when we consider the events in the news as of late regarding racism. It is part of a larger conversation. As mentioned above we also felt that “now’s the time” was a fitting title for the exhibition because now is the time for us to think about Basquiat’s work differently.
Novella: How did Lisane and Jeanine Basquiat add perspective to the exhibit?
AGO: Lisane and Jeanine enriched the perspective of the exhibition in a number of ways. On behalf of the Basquiat Estate, they offered us support and engagement in the content we were putting forward and generously lent us the work “Dark Race Horse – Jesse Owens.” They also contributed invaluable insights on the audio tour and on the “Now’s the Time” interviews, which are on view in our Culture Jam Lounge just outside the exhibition.
Novella: Will there be other events going on to celebrate Now’s The Time?
AGO: There will be events and programming for the run of the exhibition, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time Symposium on March 28th, 2015, which is an opportunity for artists, writers, historians and other creative thinkers to discuss Basquiat’s legacy. For a full listing of the events, please reference the AGO’s Basquiat Events Page.
Novella: Where are the works from?
AGO: The majority of the works are from North American and European private collections. We were also supported with loans by the Brant Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Los Angeles MOCA, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Novella: What does this exhibit mean for Toronto?
AGO: This is an important exhibition for Toronto. Basquiat is a meaningful artist for many different people, and his works is still so influential artistically and socially. Having his work in Toronto is not just a rare opportunity, but its presence in such a large and diverse city will bring together people of different ages, cultures, backgrounds, and interests to celebrate the artist, his work, and how it resonates today in this moment. The conversations that are happening on a daily basis in the exhibition and through our visitor feedback booth, chalk art wall, etc. is really exciting.
Novella: Please discuss Michael Stewart’s role in this exhibit and Basquiat’s work.
AGO: Michael Stewart was a graffiti artist and friend of Basquiat’s. In 1983, at the age of 25, he was beaten to death by transit police in New York after they arrested him for tagging the wall of a subway station. His death affected Basquiat deeply not just because it was a tragic loss, but also because it spoke to larger issues of racism. Basquiat knew that this fate could have just as easily been his own, which is why we included the quote, “It could have been me. It could have been me.”
This powerful work was executed shortly after Stewart’s death and depicts him as a sarcophagus-like figure with a halo over his head. Basquiat writes the word “defacement” with a copyright symbol after it, ascribing the ownership of this hate crime to the police. The work hangs in our exhibition in an unexpected baroque frame that Keith Haring put it in (he was the original owner of the work). It is particularly haunting and resonant because these are still issues of our time; racial profiling and police brutality are as much a reality today as it was in the 1980s.
Novella: Finally, why was Danez Smith’s poem included in the exhibit?
AGO: On the extended label for “The Death of Michael Stewart ” we included an excerpt from Danez Smith’s poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown”, which explores commonalities of the black experience in particular the habitual experience of the deaths of black males. The inclusion of this powerful poem next to the work emphasizes that Michael Stewart is Mike Brown, is Eric Garner, etc. The painting is in the room, which we called “Mirroring” which holds 4 portraits of black males, 2 of which are Basquiat. But these portraits are also every black man; they reflect on shared identities and experiences.
The Jean-Michel Basquiat gallery runs at the AGO from February 7th-May 10th, 2015. Be sure to hashtag #basquiat #nowsthetime #novellamag