Basquiat seated in front of mural

Jean-Michel Basquiat on Show at the AGO

For a brief moment he burned brighter than any other star in the neo-expressionist universe.

Making Basquiat-inspired art at the participatory wall, photo: Cherryl Bird

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time is a powerful glimpse into the world of the revolutionary multi-disciplinarian who rose from anonymity, creating art and poetry on New York City street walls under the tag SAMO© to flourish as a leader of the new wave, standing beside the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, exhibiting his work in the world’s most established galleries and museums, obtaining record-breaking prices at auction houses, and knocking heads with the vanguard of the social elite – all by the age of 27.

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) retrospective of Now is the Time is the only stop in North America and the largest Canadian show of the artist’s work with 100 pieces from museum and private collections on display in downtown Toronto.

The gallery has pulled out all the stops to promote the event, hiring Holmes PR group to boost media and communications efforts.  The biggest move was enlisting 80s hip hop legend Grandmaster Flash, “one of the founding fathers of hip hop and the first DJ and hip hop artist (alongside the Furious Five) to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” for a sold-out performance at AGO First Thursdays on Feb 5 with local artists’ installations and talks, two nights before the Basquiat opening.

Walker Court hosted performances by the Grandmaster, local dancehall-soul dynamic duo Bonjay, who debuted songs from their forthcoming LP Lush Life, a Basquiat-inspired installation by Amber Williams King, a Basquiat-Warhol salute called Factory Photo Booth by artists-in-residence Mammalian Diving Reflex, graffiti artist BOMBA, DJ Andycapp, break-dance crew UNITY “alongside ballet dancers,” Montreal-based dancer-choreographer Dana Michel, and a moderated discussion on anti-black racism presented in part by the Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition entitled “It Could Have Been Me”: Perspectives on the Fight for Racial Justice and the Legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat with Mustafa Ahmed (Mustafa the Poet), artist/activist Syrus Marcus Ware and a whole host of other activities and venerable cultural influencers.

A crowd gathers below the circular staircase inside the AGO
Basquiat opening night, Feb 7, photo: Cherryl Bird

The second act was issuing 3000 free tickets to the public for the late evening Feb 7 opening of the exhibition.  Two thousand went to 125 different community groups and 1000 billets were first-come-first-serve.  They were snapped up in a flurry, in just one hour, according to AGO director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum; more narrowly, they went in under “90 mins”.

On opening night a break-dance battle took shape in the gallery’s inner foyer amongst members of Basquiat’s family.  His sisters Jeanine and Lisane Basquiat and his nieces spoke lovingly of a brother whose life revolved around art since childhood, who had a museum card at the age of eight, whose work punctuated popular culture and was “everything,” but who was also “just my uncle”.

The AGO brought in art critic, historian and Edvard Munch scholar Dieter Bucchart from Austria as guest curator, set up community consultations, synchronized events with Black History Month, and catered brunch to a jam-packed audience of journalist.

Media event at Basquiat
Media event at Basquiat show on Feb 3, photo: Cherryl Bird

As if your brain wasn’t stimulated enough already, they added the Basquiat Idea Bar with topics on noise, fame, and justice, and threw in a film and some cocktails on extended-hour Fridays.  Add beat-box and spoken word performances on Sunday afternoons in the multifaceted youth arts competition Scratch & Mix Project,  inspired by Basquiat’s “desire to address issues of social justice—including racism, materialism and exploitation”.  Ten finalists received awards of $1,000.  Their work will be featured at the AGO in an exhibition that opens on April 18, 2015.

That same day, the AGO will host a “youth solidarity forum…to empower black youth to play a greater role in the community,” part of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation’s Canada-wide gallery and museum initiative called 4th Wall: Make the Invisible Visible.  The project aims “to give voice to the invisible experiences of marginalized youth,” 14 to 30 years old (deadline:  Feb 19).

Murals of Basquiat-related images cover the walls of St. Patrick subway station.  A digital advertising reel promotes the exhibition from a billboard high atop the south-east complex at the corner of Bay and Dundas, to which a pedestrian quietly responds, “Oh wow”.

All of this was in an effort to elicit that kind of response from the public.  It appears that the AGO was successful in capturing the essence of Basquiat in all his domains, as a musician, filmmaker, illustrator, cartoonist and painter who constructed art in a layer-upon-layer of multiple media format, often in one single piece of work; as a story-teller who entices his audience with graphic, sometimes gruesome, images in order to show them history, mythology and culture; as a common man who was concerned about the environment and issues of equality; and as a disruptor whose influence travels beyond his peers to inspire future generations.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time runs from Feb 7 to May 10, 2015 at the AGO, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto
Ph: 416-979-6648

by Cherryl Bird
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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