It was only after I read Edwidge Danticat’s chapter on Basquiat in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artists at Work that I really became interested in Basquiat. The Brooklyn Museum is hosting an exhibit of his work that runs through the end of August. Can I make it there with my other obligations this summer. In “Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Unknown Notebooks’ at the Brooklyn Museum,” the reviewer wrote that “Language was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first artistic language.” I want to experience that first-hand because as I move more fully into visual culture, I wan to be very careful and thoughtful about the artists that I engage and from whom I take my own visual cues.
In the chapter on Basquiat, “Welcoming Ghosts,” Danticat wrote that ” Basquiat had his own pass to the Brooklyn Museum at a very young age and was a visual vampire” (130). Later, Danticat notes:
Though he didn’t always cite the island nation as a direct influence, Basquiat was certainly aware of… Haiti. Basquiat was perhaps asked about Haiti as much as he was about Puerto Rico and the continent of Africa, about which he told Demosthenes Davvetas of New Art International, “I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it, it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. Th at doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live” (132).
So I what to think about how Basquiat deploys cultural memory to either refute a kind of insistence by the interviewer on his deep and living connection to his ‘roots.’ There has been a tremendous amount of work on cultural memory – I think immediately of Ron Eyerman’s work on trauma and memory, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African-American Identity. There are, of course, others but his work has stayed with me due to the study of how African-Americans respond to the ‘memory’ of slavery, even those who have never had a living relative who was a slave. This digs deep into how history and memorial culture impact a people and witnessing of an past experience, historical identification and identity.