|(J-MB in Deep Thought, by DWats)|
The series of Basquiat's black & white 35mm, stark-naked portraits adorned the white walls of Suzanne Geiss Co. – an art gallery located on Grand Street in NYC. At first glance, my mouth dropped to the floor because Basquiat average body type was spread eagle from ceiling to floor, corner to corner. "Is that his scrotum? All-righty then," I thought to myself. I didn't go to the art gallery to judge and examine Basquiat's package, I was actually there for the panel discussion — Looking at the Black Male Nude in Art.
The panel was quite impressive.
It was moderated by writer, producer, and activist Tanya Selvaratnam. The panel included writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis; Elise Gallant a contributor at Purple Fashion Magazine; author, columnist, music and culture critic Nelson George; video and performance artist Kalup Linzy; and visual and performance artist Xaviera Simmons.
|(Audience & Panelists)|
"Nudity is a complex and fascinating subject," Selveratnam said as she kicked off the discussion. However, when you take a look at the Black male nude things tends to get even more complicated, which was the reoccurring theme of the night. The panelists described Black male nudes being viewed as envious and something that many people aspire to be.
Michaela Angela Davis offered the example of when Vibe magazine had Treach of Naughty by Nature on the cover of the 1992 fall issue as being an entry way of exposing a little bit of Black male nudity to the masses. She explained that it was done intentionally to tap into that side of hip-hop during that era. "It was a new way of looking at Black men," she said and also reminding the audience that the tactic was repeated when R&B singer-songwriter D'Angelo’s sensual How Does it Feel video hit the airwaves.
|(Vibe Fall 1992) (Rolling Stone Aug. 2012)|
When it comes to Black male bodies in the nude, what is considered beautiful? Before you can answer that question, you have to be comfortable with nudity. I'll be honest with you; I have always been uncomfortable looking at naked men in the art form. Panel participant Xaviera Simmons said something that actually helped me see beyond the penis and nudity in general. "When I've taken care of my whole body, spiritually and physically, I feel really comfortable. … I am surprised that people are still uncomfortable being nude," she expressed.
Simmons' comment got me thinking about a Black emerging artist who I gather is uncomfortable with male nudity. A friend of his posted something relating to Basquiat on one of his social media newsfeeds. In turn, I invited them to join me to hear what the panel had to say on the topic and I posted the link to Looking at the Black Male Nude in Art panel discussion, which included a thumbnail of Basquiat. "TC, I had to take that down because all I saw was a nut sack peeking out. I'm not cool with that." Really? All I was thinking is, "You're an artist. You paint naked women in provocative poses all the time. Why does it matter if a naked Black male is in your comment box?"
Panelist participant Kalup Linzy, who remembered being exposed to nudity at a relatively young age, filled in my confusion when he shared his experience with the audience. "The strict church upbringing made appreciating nudity [a challenge]." Eureka! I think I finally understand why my friend and I were so caught up with not wanting to see naked Black males in the nude. It was our upbringing. We were taught that being naked is a sin and we should be ashamed. But like Simmons said, “we were all born naked.”
It was at that point that I began to relax. The large scale nude images of Basquiat weren’t so jarring to me anymore. But I still wondered why in the world would Paige Powell share these intimate photos with the world?
|(Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude, by Paige Powell)|
Nelson George, who was part of the panel, was also a little taken aback by Powell's idea to share Basquiat’s bare moments with the art world. "At first I was offended because I thought it was exploitation. But then I understood."
"To see Jean-Michel so big … it's nice to see this, but there's still a lot of pain," said Davis who admitted to a feeling of guilt of Basquiat's passing. "No one has ever been as cool, at least for me. We needed him here. He was like a rock star. … How did we let him go?"
"It's complicated," said Simmons, "he passed away at such a young age, and he was at his height."
I'm right there with you George! There are a plethora of Black American artists out there. But where are they? Why don't we see their work? Why aren't they being shown in the galleries? Wait a minute…why aren’t there more Black-owned art galleries? Or even better, who is buying Black art? And why in the hell is the topic of Black nude males so damn complicated? I'll give my view on that part of the panel discussion in a future post. Stay tuned…
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