All artists of color are faced with the question of whether or not to assert their ethnic identity in their art or to simply make art without ethnicity.  The white world expects Chicanos to make only murals, for example, and expects Blacks to deal with African-American subject matter.  Many artists struggle against being forced into ethnic categories while others simply transcend their ethnicity.

Many people do not know that Martin Puryear is an African-American artist.  His sculptures do not appear to have any particular ethnicity or African narratives.  But appearances are deceiving. Puryear is an internationally trained artist who served in the Peace Corps and found himself in West Africa, in the nation of Sierra Leone.  West Africa faces outward to Europe and America and was a convenient jumping off site for slave trade.  The ancestors of many African Americans began their journey into generational slavery in Sierra Leone.

Puryear was inspired by the craft objects and craft techniques of the people of the nation.  His sculptures are essentially greatly enlarged and abstracted versions of African objects, dislocated from their source and function, but still evocative of another culture.  Audiences in the know who arrive at the Getty Museum of Art in Brentwood recognize the huge wire scoop-like sculpture on the plaza as being derived from the culture of Sierra Leone. Visitors who do not know Puryear’s African references think that the installation is another abstract work of art.  One of Puryear’s most obvious African references is his 36 foot Ladder to Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was an interesting and problematic character in Black history.

Unlike W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, who were militant-minded when it came to Black rights, Washington was believed in accommodating the white desire to be separate from Blacks.  He believed in “gradualism,” that is, African-Americans would gradually be given rights as the whites saw fit.  Called an “Uncle Tom” by many African-Americans, Washington, in the mind of whites was a “model Negro” and was even invited to dine at the White House, for an evening with the President.

Washington was part of the Black “culture of waiting:” Blacks were always being told to “wait” for equality, because it was “too soon” to gain their rights as citizens.  And yet, Puryear’s ladder stretches upward, striving to reach its goal.  The shape of the ladder in not straight but meandering, indicating the slow path to equal rights, and the bottom of the ladder is wider than the top which is very narrow, giving the impression of a ladder to the starts, disappearing in the distance of African-American achievement.

Perhaps the best-known African-American artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was of Hatiian-Puerto-Rican heritage.  After a tragic and disturbed childhood on the streets of New York, Basquiat became a graffiti artist and a colorful part of the Eighties East Village scene, with his crown-like short dreads.  He was known by his signature, “Samo,” meaning “Same old Shit,” referring to the drugs he took.  Basquiat was one of a small group of ambitious artists who had their eyes on the prize: New York galleries.  Despite his reputation as a street artist, Basquiat was actually from a well-educated, middle-class family of professionals, and he was determined to become a fine artist.

Basquiat was lucky enough to be a painter at a time when painting was making a comeback and the art world was looking for new talent.  Along with fellow graffiti artists, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, Basquiat made sure his art was on the walls near the gallery scene and he was eventually “discovered” by art dealers who promoted him and his career.  Basquiat was as much a writer and poet as a painter and most of his paintings are covered with writing.  What did he write about?  Basquiat was unusual for Black  artists at that time, in that he made the Black Male the protagonist of his work. Rarely do women appear in his works, most of which celebrate African-American heroes, jazz great Charlie Parker, boxers, Floyd Patterson and Mohammad Ali, and the famous blues musician, Robert Johnson.

Well-educated and knowledgable about Black history, Basquiat told tales of slave uprisings and Black resistance.  However, one wonders if any of his white buyers ever bothered to read the texts of his paintings.  The texts criticized and castigated whites and made fun of white liberals, but the paintings sold very well, making Basquiat a wealthy and successful man while still in his twenties.  He painted in Armani suits, which he then threw away.  He partied with the likes of Andy Warhol and Julian Schnable.  He was young, beautiful, black, and rich.  The rest of the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a cautionary tale of a man who was exploited for his talents and for his ability to earn money for his dealers who worked him “like a slave.”  Sensitive, high strung and aware of his designation as a colorful “primitive” with “natural” talent, Basquiat retreated deeper into drugs and (white) women (including Madonna), until his death from a drug overdose.  He was twenty-seven years old.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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