Word of mouth (Nov/Dec 2017)

Why Jean-Michael Basquiat is a posthumous art star, how the Sunset Festival in Trinidad is changing Caribbean dance music, and where to end 2017 with a truly big bang: Paramaribo

  • Photo by Nowwy Jirawat/Shutterstock.com
  • Photo courtesy Sunset Festival
  • Hollywood Africans (1983, acrylic and oil stick on canvas), by Jean-Michel Basquiat. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York, courtesy The Barbican Art Gallery

The Basquiat boom

Philip Sander takes in an action-packed exhibition of the artist Jean-Michael Basquiat, the son of a Haitian immigrant who became the most celebrated American artist of his time

Earlier this year, when a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold at auction for US$110.5 million in New York, it didn’t just set a record for the late artist — it was the highest auction price ever paid for an artwork by any American. It was also just another superlative in the meteoric posthumous career of one of the defining creative talents of the 1980s.

Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican–American mother, Basquiat grew up trilingual, speaking English, French, and Spanish, in close contact with New York’s swelling Caribbean communities. His artistic talent was obvious early on, nurtured by his doting mother, who took him to the city’s many museums, signed him up for art classes, and bought him books including a prized copy of Gray’s Anatomy, whose illustrations would influence Basquiat’s later work.

But, despite the teenage Jean-Michel’s obvious intelligence and love of reading, family troubles — and his mother’s mental illness — derailed his academic career. He dropped out of school more than once, ran away from home at age fifteen, and became estranged from his father. At sixteen, he was supporting himself, just barely, by selling handmade postcards and t-shirts.

He was also already earning the attention of NYC’s cutting-edge art world, for the distinctive poem-like graffiti he and a friend left on downtown walls in the dead of night — signed with their pseudonym SAMO, short for “same old.” When the Village Voice newspaper finally tracked down the authors of the witty spray-painted lines, it was the beginning of a dizzyingly rapid rise in acclaim. Within a few years, Basquiat was signed to a major commercial gallery, his paintings were selling for prices in five figures, and he was one of the hottest and most controversial young artists in a reviving art scene — and a rare example of a black artist achieving genuine cultural celebrity. It was a brilliant but brief trajectory: in 1988, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven.

But the story was hardly over. A 1992 retrospective at the Whitney Museum sealed Basquiat’s reputation, and in the decades since, an avalanche of shows, books, and documentaries have built interest in his paintings — and their prices — to astronomical heights.

It’s astonishing, then, that Basquiat: Boom for Real — the survey exhibition that opened in September at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, and runs until 28 January, 2018 — is his first major posthumous show in the UK, heralded with near-universal excitement among British art fans. Assembling more than a hundred works with copious selections from the Basquiat archives — notebooks, letters, video and sound recordings, paint-flecked books from the artist’s personal library, and even a fridge he once covered with magic-marker drawings — Boom for Real sets out to document his full aesthetic range and intellectual preoccupations, while situating Basquiat in the downtown NYC scene of the early 1980s, where he befriended icons as diverse as Andy Warhol, Madonna, and the Jamaican-descended early rapper Fab 5 Freddy.

The sensory force of all these objects is almost overwhelming, but curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne have devised an orderly narrative through the Barbican’s two floors of galleries, following both biographical and thematic chronology. In one room they offer a partial recreation of Basquiat’s first exhibition, bringing together early works that grabbed the attention of New York art critics in 1981. Other rooms are devoted to SAMO’s graffiti, to Basquiat’s friendship and creative collaborations with Warhol — including a painting they made together — and his intersections with downtown musicians and filmmakers (here you can watch the full seventy-two minutes of Downtown 81, otherwise known as New York Beat, with Basquiat in a self-referential starring role).

The show also traces Basquiat’s fascination with jazz, with African American heroes (like the boxer Jack Johnson) and art historical figures (see his portrait of Pablo Picasso), and his devotion to books, which constantly surrounded him in his studio. Almost as breathtaking as the large-scale paintings with their bold fields of colour and repeated iconography are the pages from Basquiat’s notebooks installed in an intimate space. (Tragically, the cheap notebooks were disbound to allow their display in conventional frames, as though the pages were individual works — an act of archival vandalism.) Here, Basquiat’s graphomania, dry humour, and sharp ear for the subtleties of speech are at their most stark, and it’s obvious he could also have had a very different career as an avant-garde poet.

Indeed, going back to the SAMO days, text was always a dominant element in Basquiat’s work, rendered in a distinctive hand and deployed for its visual qualities as much as its semantic ones. His phrases, tags, and lists collect a vocabulary obsessed with history and power relations, race stereotypes, money and spirituality, the art world’s cynical commercialism, and the culture of celebrity which Basquiat both enjoyed and, paradoxically, mocked. None of these phenomena has receded in the three decades since Basquiat’s early death.

Created in a very particular time and place — a gritty, risky New York long lost to rampant gentrification — Basquiat’s work retains a freshness and urgency that feels utterly contemporary, in an age of renewed ethnic tensions and reality-show politicians. He was a slyly knowing rebel who’s become, in his afterlife, an unlikely kind of exemplar: in the age of Brexit and border walls, it’s bracing to remember that the most iconic American artist of recent decades was the son of a Caribbean immigrant.

The EDM beat

Laura Dowrich explains how the Sunset Festival in Trinidad is pointing the way to a dance music craze

Glow sticks, pulsing music, top international DJs: if you’re looking for the ultimate party to close off the year, Trinidad’s Sunset Festival is the place to be.

A celebration of electronic dance music — or EDM, as it’s usually known — the Sunset Festival brings together top Caribbean acts with some of the best DJs in the EDM world. Held every December, this is the Caribbean’s version of international events such as Tomorrowland in Belgium and Ultra in Miami, featuring big names such as Martin Garrick, Major Lazer, Skrillex, and Bad Royale in past years’ star-studded casts, alongside soca heavyweights like Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin and reggae star Tarrus Riley.

As a matter of fact, since its inception in 2014, Sunset has become a major stage for the germination of collaborations and hits. It was at the 2014 festival that Montano and Garlin had a spontaneous appearance together on stage, and the King of Soca set T&T’s music world alight with his many calls to collaborate with the Viking. In 2016, the duo quietly buried the hatchet and, to the delight of their respective fans, teamed up in 2017 on a song called “Busshead”. They then spent much of the year performing together on the Busshead Tour.

Sunset 2016, meanwhile, saw the debut of what became the biggest song of T&T’s 2017 Carnival: the Ultimate Rejects’ “Full Extreme”. A melding of EDM and soca, the song went on to dominate every corner of the Carnival landscape and won the Road March title with barely any competition, playing 556 times on stage compared with 72 times for Montano’s “Your Time Now”.

Produced by businessmen Johnny Soong and Benny Hatem along with Karrilee Fifi, the Sunset Festival was an opportunity they seized to work with one of the biggest electronic DJ groups in the world, Major Lazer — one member of whom, Chris “Jillionaire” Leacock, is Trinidadian. The group has collaborated with several soca artists, among them Garlin and Montano. “The timing was perfect, considering the growth of the local electronic market and the fact that Major Lazer is the most palatable and relevant group to the Caribbean market,” say Team Sunset.

That Trinis could fill the O2 venue in Chaguaramas for this event, mere weeks before the onslaught of the Carnival season, speaks volumes about the local popularity of EDM. Sunset organisers explain it’s the growing popularity of the genre and its offshoot, Caribbean Dance Music, that helps grow the festival.

“Since dance music has crossed over into mainstream pop, the electronic market in Trinidad has substantially grown. There are also monthly events that help develop the market throughout the year,” they say. “By including DJs that play CDM and artists that have CDM tracks in the Sunset Festival line up, it bridges the gap between dance music lovers and Caribbean music lovers, allowing us to target a wider market.”

Sunset also provides a platform for many local DJs to make a name for themselves. Last year, organisers also held a Caribbean Dance Music Conference to further solidify the dance music genre in T&T. Sometimes you just have to follow the beat.

The 2017 Sunset Festival is scheduled for mid-December

End with a bang

Nixon Nelson puts on his earplugs and heads to Suriname’s Owru Yari celebrations

Around the world and across the Caribbean, the final day of the year brings a buzz of commemorative activity. For some, the turn of the calendar is an excuse for an all-frills party complete with formal duds, funny hats, and sparkling wine. Others gather loved ones for quieter celebrations, or head to religious services. Different countries, communities, and families have their own traditions, ancient or relatively new-fangled. Cubans traditionally start the new year eating one grape for each of the coming twelve months, and many Afro-Caribbean families feast on stewed black-eye peas, a dish thought to bring good fortune.

And then there are the fireworks: explosions of colourful light originally invented by the Chinese many centuries ago, but now universally popular at moments of mass celebration. The noise and glare were once thought to scare off malevolent spirits, and so guarantee an auspicious start to the new year. The superstition may have died away, but it seems the attractions of gunpowder endure.

It’s not a tradition beloved by all: many are the complaints about the terrifying effect of fireworks on pets, the elderly and infirm, and really anyone who dislikes loud noises. But don’t tell that to the thousands of Surinamese who crowd the streets of Paramaribo for what may be the most astonishing noise display to be found anywhere in the region, the celebrations of Owru Yari — Old Year’s Day.

If you found yourself in the Surinamese capital on the morning of 31 December, you might assume some sort of parade or Carnival was imminent. Bleachers and viewing platforms line the streets, food and drink vendors set up in every available spot, and sound systems vie with live bands brandishing brass instruments and drums.

All along the pavements, below historic timber buildings and modern storefronts alike, festive throngs assemble, of all ages. Beverages emerge from coolers, children race excitedly around, and everyone’s dressed in their trendiest. Parbo beer flows copiously.

Meanwhile, final preparation of the pagara is under way. Down the middle of the main thoroughfares, many thousands of small red firecrackers are knotted together to form a vast, serpentine garland of gunpowder more than a mile long. As noon approaches, police officers clear stragglers onto the pavements and more cautious onlookers reach for earplugs.

At the stroke of twelve, each pagara is ignited, and a trail of fire races down the street. The roar of the crowd disappears behind the swiftly moving explosion, and the air fills with smoke.

Confetti flies, the DJs turn up the volume, and the street party hits an intense new high. Any evil spirits brave enough to linger must surely find themselves converted by the sheer effusion of celebration.

Tomorrow will bring a massive clean-up, opportunity for sober (let’s hope) reflection, and the enumerating of New Year’s resolutions. But for now, there’s an Old Year to be toasted and celebrated and shown out the door.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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