Documentary

Basquiat, from New York to Africa

The African-American artist's dizzying rise to fame is as fascinating as his neo-Expressionist paintings themselves. The French documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat, l’Afrique au cœur, available exclusively on the TV5MONDEplus platform on August 1, looks back over this art legend and analyzes how Africa influenced his work and psyche.
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Basquiat in his studio, New York, 1985. © Lizzie Himmel/The New York Times Magazine

A whole host of documentaries have already been made about the king of New York’s underground scene and his different excesses, including his overnight success, the millions of dollars accumulated in his East Village apartment, his relationship with Andy Warhol, his drug addiction, and his premature death in 1988 at the age of 27. One lesser-known aspect of his life is Basquiat’s fascination with Africa, the land of his ancestors. Revisiting his work and its Africanity is the prism offered by the documentary by producer Rachel Kahn and director Cyril Bérard – although both are careful to avoid overinterpretation.

The film L’Afrique au cœur (Africa at Heart) opens on Basquiat’s trip to Côte d’Ivoire in October 1986. Sent by his Swiss gallerist, Bruno Bischofberger, the enfant terrible of the contemporary art world was exhibiting his paintings at the French Cultural Center in Abidjan. While the public was disconcerted by his daring pieces and offered a rather lukewarm reaction (a local newspaper printed the headline “Unsettling Shapes and Colors”), this experience enabled Basquiat to confront the African identity he championed in his work, which would soon transcend his art.

Africa as Therapy

Guided by his French friends, Basquiat discovered the richness of Côte d’Ivoire, including the banks of the Bandama River, the island of Tiagba, and the Savanes region to the north of the country. This was the cradle of the Senufo people, a land of artists and spirituality. The artist explored the street markets in the region’s capital Korhogo looking for talismans and amulets, hoping to purge himself of his inner demons or “ghosts,” as he called them.

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Portrait de Jean-Michel Basquiat en bagnard (Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat as a Prisoner), 1988. © Louis Jammes

After returning to New York, he created a now iconic work. In white capital letters on a black background, he wrote: “To repel ghosts.” In Africa, Basquiat discovered that art is a defense against ill fortune. But could the continent have saved him? After recharging his batteries in the motherland, he dreamed of returning there. He suffered a drug overdose on August 12, 1988, and a one-way plane ticket to Abidjan was later found in his personal belongings.

A Transmitter of Culture

While Basquiat was influenced by Africa, the reverse was also true. “Generations of artists have been inspired by him and have moved on to find their way,” states the documentary, which features contemporary African painters such as Jacobleu, Dominique Zinkpé, and Aboudia. All of them claim that Basquiat has influenced their work. When a generation of young students is then asked to talk about their mentors, all of them are African, including Armand Boua and Ouattara Watts.

The documentary also highlights the incredible work carried out by the Zinsou Foundation in Benin, which launched the Basquiat in Cotonou exhibition in 2007, some 20 years after the show at the French Cultural Center in Abidjan. In a space reserved for children, painter Gérard Quenum introduces future artists to Basquiat’s works filled with color and movement.

One of the film’s strengths is how it showcases this reciprocal influence between Basquiat and Africa, while using paintings to show how contemporary African artists have captured his energy and infused their own work with it. Thanks to them, negritude continues to feature in the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries.

U.S. release: August 1
Running time : 60 min
Director: Cyril Bérard
Producer: Rachel Kahn
Streaming platform: TV5MONDEplus

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