Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I’m left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it’s been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.
Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They’re not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat’s own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.
I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Basquiat’s shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou’s proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.
It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat’s father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father’s homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou’s words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti’s citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn’t, and perhaps, won’t. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.
Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.
I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.