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Jean-Michel Basquiat saw himself as Exu

June 7, 2009 Contemporary 2 Comments

Coming to auction at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale (L09622) on June 25th is a profound work (Lot 18) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In it, he paints himself as Exu, the trickster. The painting was to be one of his last before his death in 1988. It has a pre-estimate range of 1.1 to 1.3 million GBP.

Copy + Paste from Sotheby’s:

MEASUREMENTS
measurements
199.3 by 254cm.alternate measurements
78 1/2 by 100in.
DESCRIPTION
signed with the artist’s initials, titled and dated 88 on the reverseacrylic and oil stick on canvas
Executed in 1988PROVENANCE
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Lang & O’Hara, New York
Private Collection, Taiwan
Enrico Navarra, New York
Private CollectionEXHIBITED
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Peintures, Sculptures, Oeuvres sur Papier et Dessins, 1989, pp. 58-59, illustrated in colour
Pully-Lausanne, FAE Musée d’Art Contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 109, illustrated in colour
Malaga, Junta de Andalucia, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996, pp. 90-91, illustrated in colour
Kaohsiung, Museum of Fine Arts; Taichung Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, pp. 86-87, illustrated in colour
Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, pp. 76-77, illustrated in colour
Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum; Marugame, M.I.M.O.C.A., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, pp. 94-95, illustrated in colour
Klagenfurt, Stadtgalerie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999
Naples, Museo Civico Castel Nuovo, Jean-Michel Basquiat a Napoli, 1999-2000, pp. 122-23, illustrated in colour
Cuneo, Il Prisma, Galleria d’Arte, Basquiat a Cuneo, 2001, pp. 54-55, illustrated in colour
Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, 2002, p. 115, illustrated in colour
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Work of a Lifetime, 2003, pp. 118-19, illustrated in colour
New York, Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, 2005-06, pp. 160-61, illustrated in colour
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES
Literature Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, vol. I, pp. 370-71,
illustrated in colour
Tony Shafrazi, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 294, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, vol. I, pp. 366-67, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, vol. II, p. 268, no. 4, illustrated in colourCATALOGUE NOTE

Executed in 1988, Exu is one of the last recorded works by Jean -Michel Basquiat, who died prematurely in August that same year from an overdose of heroine at the age of 27. Alongside the eerily prophetic final painting Riding with Death, in Exu we see the artist’s final self-representation that he left for posterity. Deceptively complex, in this expressively explosive painting he casts himself as the trickster deity Exu of the Yoruba religion indigenous to Nigeria and Benin which, at the time of the Middle Passage, became common to nascent Diasporic faiths in the Americas. Like Hermes in Classical Antiquity and Saint Anthony in Catholicism, the African spirit – or orisha – Exu is the patron of boundaries and the travellers that cross them. Directing traffic along the road of life, he resides at the crossroads of fortune and is invoked when important decisions are taken.Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up in the cultural melting pot of Brooklyn, Basquiat’s art habitually draws on his heritage and its artistic legacy. On the one hand, his interest in primitive African art and mythology provided a necessary foil to the prevailing trend in America for chaste minimalist art; however, it also presented a vehicle through which he could address important themes of the history of the subjugation of his ancestors. This is made explicit in the titling of the present work and its bold presentation in block letters at the top of the composition. The original (anglicised) spelling is Esu in Nigeria, however it became Exu in Portuguese speaking Brazil when enslaved Africans brought their spiritual practices with them at the time of the Middle Passage. Here Basquiat emphasises the linguistic evolution of the word by drawing a box around the X and in doing so he alludes to the shared history of his ancestors. Similarly the cigarettes that litter the floor surrounding the figure are a standard offering to Exu, however they also reference the tobacco trade and European exploitation of enslaved Africans in the New World.

In Yoruba mythology Exu is also the god of chaos and in African folklore a trickster who disobeys codified rules and conventional behaviour. It is in this last respect that Basquiat most closely identified with the spirit. Rather like the Shakespearean intelligent fool, the trickster – a stock character of African American literature – often used his wits to outsmart his opponents and served as an example of how it is possible to overcome a system of oppression from within. The most famous of these characters is Br’er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus Stories endemic to the Southern United States, seen by many to represent the enslaved African who uses his wits to overcome the circumstances of his subjugation. In the 1980s, Basquiat was an outsider in a predominantly white art world. Throughout his oeuvre, Basquiat depicted himself as a celebration and embodiment of black power and a rebel against a post-colonial world. As an empowered black artist, he infiltrated and – by the time this picture was painted – dominated a New York art world which was formerly the reserve of white men.

Most hauntingly, however, in African mythology Exu is also the personification of death, a psycho pomp whose responsibility it is to deliver newly deceased souls to the afterlife. In the present work, the manifestation of Exu closely resembles images of the Egyptian deity Anubis, the jackal-headed god holding a flail associated with the afterlife. Basquiat was familiar with Egyptian art and cultural symbolism from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum which captured his imagination as a youth. Here the proliferation of eyes, which swarm around the figure, recall Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Eye of Wedjat used in Ancient Egypt to decorate tombs and ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. While nobody, not even Basquiat himself, could have predicted his own imminent demise, it remains an enigma of his illustrious career that his final paintings should confront and prophecy his untimely death in such a seemingly candid way. Shortly after completing this work, he depicted himself astride a diabolic skeletal beast in the final painting Riding with Death.

Throughout his short career, Basquiat wilfully played with constructions of his own identity, drawing on multifarious cultural and spiritual belief systems, ancient and modern, to create his coterie of alter-egos. In the deity Exu he finds great affinity and in doing so he creates a multi-layered painting which interweaves African American histories with the story of his art world rebellion and ultimately a prescient vision of his own death.

Link: Sotheby’s Sale L09622, Lot 18: Exu by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Karen says:

    one of my favorite artists. pure genius.

  2. fflood says:

    Maferefun Exu, and Happy Birthday to an illustrious, genius ancestor, Jean-Michel Basquiat!

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