"I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my s***!"

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Hypothetical Theological Illogic Scholastica [blog] by Gloria Steele is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Signifying Monkey

[This was an assignment submitted for this semester's internet technology class; I myself consider it a work in progress, as due to page limits I did not explore the issue as much as I would have liked. I plan to expand greatly on this in the future]

As a Black artist who must transverse a euro-centric world, defined inaccurately by a people whose tastes and ideals completely oppose his own heritage, Jean-Michel Basquiat faces the difficult task of being accepted for his art's portrayal of life as the unaccepted. Thus, his Body/Image and art becomes a paradox. Thus, he becomes the fence-straddler, the man at the crossroads, the man between worlds-- Papa Legba, or the Yoruban trickster diety Eshu-Elegbara.

In 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore famously delivered the signifying monkey monologue, the humorous tale of a clever monkey who avoids attack of his enemy the lion by accusing the elephant of secret slander. Henry Luis Gates 1983 wrote exploring the paradox of Black writers' acceptance or non-acceptance in the white literary world; the issues of the fate of Black writers' critical reception is one faced also by Black visual artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat.

As Gates reveals: “the monkey is able to signify upon the lion only because the lion does not understand the monkey's discourse.... the monkey speaks figuratively, in a symbolic code; the lion interprets or reads literally and suffers the consequence of his folly, which is a reversal of his status as king of the jungle" (Gates, 1983, 691). Thus, because the white critic interprets Basquiat through the white man's lens, the white world does not understand the obsessive paintings of heads (the Yoruban concept of consciousness as ori) and crowns (in Yoruban spirituality, one’s spirit guides or orisha are “crowned”, or embedded into the consciousness) are not a case of Basquiat's lamenting the inability to attain the crown of acclaim in the white world or of Basquiat's "loss of identity" (head/ori). Instead, it is the affirmation that his head/ori brought him the blessing of his art, and, though his art may often express the Negro's plight and suffering in the oppositional white world. His art, as it reflects his inner soul and understanding of ancestral royalty, makes him king which he already was and always is....indeed, most young kings do get their heads cut off [a reference—signifying—to Basquiat’s painting], but Basquiat never does.

Bell Hooks wrote of Basquiat: “...Fame, symbolized by the crown, is offered as the only possible path to subjectivity for the black male artist. To be un-famous is to be rendered invisible. Therefore, one is without choice. You either enter the phallocentric battlefield of representation and play the game or you are doomed to exist outside history. Basquiat wanted a place in history, and he played the game. In trying to make a place for himself--for blackness--in the established art world, he assumed the role of explorer/colonizer. Wanting to make an intervention with his life and work, he inverted the image of the white colonizer….Basquiat journeyed into the heart of whiteness. White territory he named as a savage and brutal place. The journey is embarked upon with no certainty of return. Nor is there any way to know what you will find or who you will be at journey's end. … Recognizing art-world fame to be a male game, one that he could play, working the stereotypical darky image, playing the trickster, Basquiat understood that he was risking his life--that this journey was all about sacrifice.” (Hooks, 1993, p.5)


Awo Fa'lokun Fatunmbi, “Esu-Elegba: Ifa and the Spirit of the Divine Messenger”, retrieved from http://www.awostudycenter.com/Articles/art_esu.htm

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , The "Blackness of Blackness": A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jun, 1983), pp. 685-723

Phoebe Haban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art, 1998, Penguin Books, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, New York

Bell Hooks, “Alters of sacrifice: re-membering Basquiat”, Art in America, June, 1993

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