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Celebrating Black History Month: Middle School Art Basquiat Inspired Portraits

Celebrate Black History Month

Students in Bridget Whited’s Middle School Art Class at SMMHS created expressive portraits, using oil pastels on acrylic, based on Activist and Artist Jean Michel Basquiat. An artist of many talents and a strong vision Basquiat changed the art world with his powerful images which spoke louder than words. The themes of Basquiat’s work focused on awareness of power structures and systems of racism and class struggle. He blended graffiti-style typography with African-Caribbean imagery with thick dabs of color and symbolic iconography. The crown portrayed frequently in his work is often referred to as his tag. Some suggest it symbolizes Basquiat’s interest in challenging history, but also as a reference to heroic greatness, privilege, and intellect.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Street Artist/Social Justice Artist/ Activist Artist
December 22, 1060-August 12, 1988

  • Basquiat’s art focused on “suggestive dichotomies”, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus serration, and inner versus outer experience.
  • He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.
  • Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual”, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while hie poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.
  • Basquiat tragically died of a heroin overdose at his art studio at age 27.
  • Worked with Pop Artist Andy Warhol, dated Madonna before she was famous and predicted she would be a huge influence o n the music industry.
  • His father, Gérard Basquiat, wa born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother Matilde Basquiat, who was of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
  • Basquiat was an extremely intelligent young person who spoke 3 languages: French, Spanish and English. He struggled with the Public School System structure in New York at the time and taught himself art and art history by visiting museums and mimicking what he saw.
  • His father kicked him out of the house when he quit school at age 17. Basquiat went from being homeless and unemployed to selling a single painting for up to $25,000 in a matter of several years.
  • SAMO is a slang term for “Same Old…” Basquiat coined the phrase and crown tag that accompanied the slogan with his friend Al Diaz in high school. This tag was spray painted throughout Manhattan and used to call out and bring attention to issues that he felt were inequitable and unjust. SAMO was not just about tagging graffiti – it had an intelligent message beyond the artwork and ego graffiti artist at the time.
  • The crown is a symbol used throughout his artwork and career as an artist and to represent intellect and privilege.
  • “Basquiat’s work celebrated black culture and history but also revealed its complexity and contradictions.” -Lydia Lee, Curator