So, yesterday was “First Saturday” at Brooklyn Musuem. For my out-of-town fans (or non-bohemian New Yorkers), the first Satuday of every month is a free day at the museum, complete with film screenings, symposia (or whatever the plural of symposium is) musicians, and DJ’s for a dance party. The theme usually centers around on of the exhibits, and since there is a current exhibit of Jean Michel Basquiat’s work (Google it, children! I ain’t hyperlinking every reference, so get used to it!), this month’s activities centered around all things of a Negroid (American, Haitian and Puerto Rican) nature, especially NYC-based stuff – old school hip-hop, for example.
In any case, if you are a NYC bohemian, this is the place to be on the first Saturday of the month! If it’s a Black artist, then the Black-boho’s show up in full force (narrowly beating out the Europeans and the Japanese. Yeah, I said it!). I haven’t seen that many afros and locks and earthtone clothing since, well, my last birthday party! LOL!
So, not to be outdone by the other Black bohos, I stepped into my shower, got lathered up in Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap (the almond scent), and shampoo-ed my snatch-bald head in Nature’s Gate Shampoo & Conditioner. Toweling off, I dipped up some Queen Helene’s Cocoa Butter Lotion (cuz part of being a Black Bohemian means keepin’ it real!) and once I was greased up sufficiently, added another Black Boho fragrance – an oil – Egyptian Musk.
Lastly, I slid into my super-baggy khaki cords (cuz despite it being May, it is still cold as all hell in NYC for some reason), cream-colored dashiki (fly enough to be a real boho, but with plenty rips and tears to keep my street cred), and a brown polyester leisure suit-style jacket with faux pearl buttons. I threw on(What am I saying? Bohos never throw anything on. Everything’s a part of the drag!) Some copper bracelets and a big ass clunky orange-stone ring. The shoes? Not-so-pristinely white chunky K-Swiss.
My boo picked me up, looking just as boho-fly, and we went to buy some chicken wings and fries from the Halal Chinese restaurant, which we finished in the van before hitting the steps of the museum.
As much as I hate (or claim to) these type of seen-and-be-seen type of events, there is something I like about playing dress up, looking like somebody you’d wanna fuck and going out to make other people warm for your form. Art be damned! LOL!!! Seriously, it is somewhat self-affirming–considering that as a black boho fag who came out at the height of homo-thug hype and the down-low disaster–to be able to see yourself in other people, even if it is full of it’s own bullshit and contradictions.
So, in the midst of this scene of has-beens, wannabees and will-be-somedays, I am also here to actually see the exhibit. I am not an art aficionado – not fine arts, anyway. But I know that Basquiat is one of a handful of painters that I really feel. And I wanted to see his work in person. So, after walking up 5 flights of stairs, and waiting in a line for about 20 minutes (the line was backed up 5 rooms on the floor, but moved surprisingly quickly), my boo and I enter the exhibit.
The exhibit is on two floors of the museum. And since Basquiat’s work is not still-life fruit bowls nor quaint country scenes, two floors of walking through a Basquiat show is no easy feat, emotionally. Amidst the tourists and the bohemians (some with children!) and trying to move at a pace also comfortable for my boyfriend (completely unfamiliar with both Basquiat and his work), I tried to engage every piece as if I was alone with it. Museums, for all their pristine sterility, are designed so that you can, in theory, solely focus on the painting, and not your environment. This is extremely difficult when the place is teeming wih people, and the museum has spent hundreds of thousands to create and promote the “environment” of “First Saturday”– which has nothing to do with the art itself, but more about getting consumers to identify or aspire to the lifestyle they attach to that environment. And lets face it, many people go to First Saturday not because they can’t afford the $8 suggested donation every other day of the month, but because of the carnival-like atmosphere that this monthly event creates. In short, it’s a meat market for the up-and-coming.
I wondered, what Basquiat, wherever he was watching from, was making of all this. I thought he was loving the attention, as he definitely wanted desperately to be considered among the greats. He must have also hated the arrogance that surrounded such affairs. I thought I heard him laugh out loud when a kid around 9 years old ran up and slapped the gold tooth of some skull he’d painted, while the whole gallery gasped in utter horror, and shooting daggers at the Japanese mom for not having more control over her rambunctious (and half Black!) litte boy. For that moment pointed to the hypocracy of the whole event – a bunch of bourgie ass people mad at a young Black boy for doing what children do, and yet gawking at the gritty, unpretentious work of a poor Black sexuallly ambiguous junkie who died so tragically young — which is the way white people tend to like Blacks — dead at a young age. Bird. Billie. Bob.
For us Black bohemians, we were there, desperately wanting to see ourselves in his work, but uncomfortable (if not pissed) at having to be exposed to the work of our own geniuses in settings like these. But we also come with our own bullshit, too. Many of us in that room were having our sick and perverse fantasies of being the next Black messiah slung on some stark white walls in such a place, long after our death. Is this the best we can hope for? Isn’t this sense of isolation (and desperate loneliness that accompanies the Black Messiah syndrome) what Basquiat himself was trying to deal with, both in his own life, and his study of the lives of Bird, Joe Louis, and others he painted about?
So, in attending an event to feel a sense of community with my fellow Black Boho Brethren and Sistren, ironically, I end up confronting my own isolation. I think this is what I got from Basquiat’s life and work (and from the pleasure of seeing it here, amongst my fellow Black bohemians); being wealthy and famous does not make us free.