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Monday, February 24, 2014

Basquiat Stripped

(J-MB in Deep Thought, by DWats)
Take a moment to recall when you saw your first nude Black male whether in real life, in a painting, a photograph, sculpture, or any other medium. I’ve seen a number of unclothed men in private but never paid attention to them in the art form. That all changed when I had the opportunity to be up front and center with rare candid photos of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude, taken by Paige Powell, the ex-girlfriend of the Haitian-American artist. (see images nine paragraphs down)

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)
That was in the early 1990s. By the 2000s things started to shift and the image of the Black male began to evolve into images that weren't so focused on rips and cuts. "We evolved into Rick Ross … and things got bigger," said Davis. "The idea of how we look at Black male bodies is dangerous. Black male bodies are in trouble. No one thinks of them as beautiful," Davis expressed.

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)
It turns out that I wasn't alone. During the Q&A segment, a member of the audience passionately expressed her dislike of Basquiat in the nude. "Why did she need to take these pictures and exhibit them on these walls? Why did we have to see him in this way?" Selveratnam explained to the unhappy Basquiat aficionado, and the rest of the audience that back then pulling out a camera was only meant for special occasions. "Now, we live by images," she said noting that we currently live in a society driven by technology and everyone has some form of digital device to capture life in an instant. Or better yet, art in an instant. “I wouldn’t be surprised if naked selfies become a trend in a few years,” Simmons conveyed.

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."

Even though Basquiat has been gone for nearly 26 years, he still lives on in today's hip-hop culture. Jay-Z makes several references of the artist in his Magna Carter Holy Grail album. "I'm the new Jean-Michel," is just one of lines that play on and on in my head from his track Picasso Baby. Carter is also a collector of Basquiat's work. But why are we stuck on Basquiat? "There are so many other Black artists out there. Basquiat is now a fetish," said George.

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…

If you have any answers to these questions feel free to email them to or tweet them to @TCsViews

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