In life and art Javaka Steptoe can claim a few things in common with the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both men were raised in Brooklyn, NY; both were exposed to the art world as children; and both exude a bold, urban vibe in their work. In his dazzling Radiant Child, Steptoe brilliantly explores the life and art of Basquiat.
When did you first learn about Basquiat?
Basquiat’s imagery started popping up for me when I was in my teens, when I had freedom to move about the city. I wasn’t looking for his graffiti as I traveled around the East Village, but even so, I remember seeing one of his SAMO tags. What interested me about it wasn’t the name, but the line drawing of a face that accompanied it. Later, in 1985, when I was still in high school, I saw the poster, featuring Andy Warhol and Basquiat (both wearing boxing gloves), that advertised a gallery show. It really stood out for me; I thought both looked kind of goofy. But still, I didn’t know who Basquiat was. Then came the story in the New York Times Magazine. Back then, you didn’t see a lot of black people on the cover of the magazine. I thought Basquiat looked cool—he was wearing a suit but no shoes—looking like the world was his, so I sat down and read the article. That day, his name, face, and art came together in my mind. That was when I began to look for Basquiat.
What impact did he have on you as an artist?
Basquiat signified a different generation of black artists than that of Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, or Augusta Savage. Although he was older than me, he represented my generation’s experiences in his art—from the games we played to the drawings of the pointy S’s in our notebooks to the crowns we used in hip-hop graffiti. Jean-Michel validated our culture within the context of the fine art world. Claiming the position he did helped to pave the way for the explosion of black artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, and Theaster Gates, artists who have garnered national and international attention.
In your author’s note you commented that you experienced some of the downtown art scene that Basquiat lived and worked in. What was that like?
It was fun and exciting! During that time the city was racially polarized, but in the Village we all came together: black, white, Latino, Asian, etc. Dressed in our unique outfits we would meet at the fountain in Washington Square Park and roam around until we discovered where the party was that night. Back then “opening” and “party” meant the same thing. They were the places to go dressed to the nines and to rub elbows with everybody from the guy on the corner to superstars.
In your book, you don’t include Basquiat’s artwork, which you describe as “magical” and “messy,” but your art is the perfect vehicle to convey its essence and tell his story. What considerations went into that decision?
As artists, we have similar sensibilities and processes. This includes a natural sensitivity, rawness, and playfulness in our image creating, so it was a natural fit. I studied Basquiat extensively; Jean-Michel experimented with many materials in his art, and these materials became my materials. Since it was a story about him, I had to be careful not to compete with his style; my goal was to have my art serve as a container for his creativity and to allow viewers to reflect on his growth from child to mature artist. When the book opens, it’s both my art and his art on the page. As the story progresses, I release more of him and I become the wall that his canvases hang on. The last three illustrations in the book reflect actual works at different phases of his career.
Can you talk a bit about the materials you used to illustrate the book?
Found wood, acrylic paint, oil pastels, and copies of photographs. The sources of the wood include molding from brownstone rehab projects in Flatbush, Brooklyn (similar to what Basquiat would have seen growing up). Some of the wood also came from a deconstructed exhibit; those pieces were found in the dumpster at the Brooklyn Museum—the same museum Basquiat visited as a child and where he had a junior membership. The Brooklyn Museum’s collections left a palpable influence on his work. The wood was also sourced from dumpsters in the East Village and curbs in Soho—places where Basquiat roamed and might have crashed when he eventually left home. I believe every aspect of the work shares the burden of telling the story. If these sourced objects can trigger connections to places and experiences with readers, then the work collecting them was worth it.
The influence Basquiat’s mother had on the child and the artist is undeniable. How did growing up in a household with an artist—one who wrote and illustrated children’s books—influence you?
When it came to school and school assignments, the adults in my life would always debunk information told to me by teachers or that which appeared in textbooks that was questionable. Sometimes this meant I would get a whole new history lesson when I got home. I was always asked to think, to question; they cared about what was happening inside my head. If I just accepted all the information America was feeding me about black people, who knows what I would be today. My dad always talked to me about the importance of seeing yourself in books, television, movies, etc. The images you see and the stories you hear help you to form an image of yourself, and others to form an image of you. Children’s books are my way of fighting a good fight: to share who I am, what I know, to hopefully inspire, to correct a misconception or block one from being formed.
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