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“SAMO© as an Escape Clause”: Jean-Michel Basquiat's Engagement with a Commodified American Africanism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 September 2010

Department of English, University of Rhode Island, USA. Email:


Heir to the racist configuration of the American art exchange and the delimiting appraisals of blackness in the American mainstream media, Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared on the late 1970s New York City street art scene – then he called himself “SAMO.” Not long thereafter, Basquiat grew into one of the most influential artists of an international movement that began around 1980, marked by a return to figurative painting. Given its rough, seemingly untrained and extreme, conceptual nature, Basquiat's high-art oeuvre might not look so sophisticated to the uninformed viewer. However, Basquiat's work reveals a powerful poetic and visual gift, “heady enough to confound academics and hip enough to capture the attention span of the hip hop nation,” as Greg Tate has remarked. As noted by Richard Marshall, Basquiat's aesthetic strength actually comes from his striving “to achieve a balance between the visual and intellectual attributes” of his artwork. Like Marshall, Tate, and others, I will connect with Basquiat's unique, self-reflexively experimental visual practices of signifying and examine anew Basquiat's active contribution to his self-alienation, as Hebdige has called it. Basquiat's aesthetic makes of his paintings economies of accumulation, building a productive play of contingency from the mainstream's constructions of race. This aesthetic move speaks to a need for escape from the perceived epistemic necessities of blackness. Through these economies of accumulation we see, as Tate has pointed out, Basquiat's “intellectual obsession” with issues such as ancestry/modernity, personhood/property and originality/origins of knowledge, driven by his tireless need to problematize mainstream media's discourses surrounding race – in other words, a commodified American Africanism.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Richard Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in idem (compiled), Jean-Michel Basquiat (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), 15.

2 Ibid.

3 Greg Tate, “Black like B,” in Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 56.

4 Richard Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Speaking in Tongues,” in Rudy Chiappini, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat (Milan: Skira, 2005), 84.

5 Robert Farris Thompson, “Royalty, Heroism and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” in Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 30.

6 Ibid., 29.

7 Dick Hebdige, “Welcome to the Terrordome: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the ‘Dark’ Side of Hybridity,” in Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 65.

8 Ibid., 66. The question that arises from such a reductive claim, Hebdige notes, is related to Basquiat's mixed-race background: his mother being a “New Yorican” and his father being of Haitian birth.

9 Tate, 56.

10 Hebdige, 61–62.

11 Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” 21.

12 The most clear-cut explanation of the ideas that I invoke can be found in Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Litrature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1986). The third chapter of this work, “What Is a Minor Literature?”, provides, in my opinion, the most clear and conceptually cohesive explanation of the concepts that I adopt for this article.

13 Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” 21.

14 Titon, Jeff Todd, “Zydeco: A Musical Hybrid,” Journal of American Folklore, 94, 373 (1981), 403–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” rpt. in Vincent B. Leitch, ed., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2001), 1313.

16 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1992), 6.

17 Ibid.

18 Kuspitt, Donald, “The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s,” American Art, 5, 1–2 (1991), 133–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 I found this rather oblique reference to “cool” (assumable as an aesthetic) in Marshall's article “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Speaking in Tongues”; however, upon closer inspection and within my research, I was rather hard-pressed to find a definitive origin (ideally, cultural and etymological) for the term. Here, I am assuming the meaning of “cool” as a term referring to one's deportment, with an eye also to the word's meaning within jazz music culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in adjective form, “cool” is a colloquialism, originally of African American usage: “A general term of approval … sophisticated, stylish.” In reference to jazz music, it means “relaxed in style” and may “also refer to the performer.”

20 Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Speaking in Tongues,” 68.

21 Ibid., 53–84.

22 bell hooks, Outlaw Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 36.

23 bell hooks, “Postmodern Blackness” (from Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, 1990), rpt. in Leitch, 2478–80.

24 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1987), 268.