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Iconic Artworks: Basquiat’s Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta

Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio with ‘Flexible’. Photo © Lizzie Himmel, 1986. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

By Shira Wolfe

“By coupling the symbols and phrases most closely associated with the African American story with the abstract expressionist painterly technique in the multi-panel format, Jean-Michel Basquiat created an exceptional masterpiece of history painting.” – Gregoire Billet, Senior Vice President in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art combined drawing and painting with a unique stream-of-consciousness street poetry, fusing text and image, gestural abstraction and figuration, and historical information with contemporary critique. His iconic visual poetics were deeply political and direct, criticising colonialism and supporting the class struggle. The extent of Basquiat’s preoccupation with the history of white America’s oppression, racism and inequality towards black people, whilst simultaneously championing the heroes of African American culture, can be seen in his iconic multi-panel painting from 1983, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta.


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Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta by Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983. Courtesy Sotheby’s and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta

By 1983, the year Basquiat painted Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, he was already considered an artist at the vanguard of a newly emerging artistic consciousness, one that was to revive the values of painterly expressionism as a new facet of post modern art production. The five-panel painting, which measures 4.5 m in width, combines text, image, colour and form in Basquiat’s signature style, saturating every surface of the canvas. In Undiscovered Genius, the artist moves effortlessly between collective history, personal history, memory and emotion, redefining the genre of History Painting by placing himself in the work as Fig. 23 (Basquiat had turned 23 the year he painted Undiscovered Genius).

Basquiat artwork detail
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (detail), 1983. Courtesy Sotheby’s and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Sound and Rhythm

The text in this work elicits a near auditory presence, creating a syncopated rhythm through the cadence of its repetition. “Mississippi,” “Mark Twain” and “Negroes” are each repeated row after row, a sonic echo of insistence and emphasis. The auditory quality of the painting also places the work deeper within the fabric of the African-American narrative, reminiscent of the essential oral histories passed down from generation to generation. Basquiat himself was a musician and DJ as well, frequently finding a way to weave music and his musical inspirations into his paintings.

Basquiat’s Themes and Subject Matter

Undiscovered Genius combines themes and subjects that were of primary concern to Basquiat throughout his short and brilliant life and career, namely the history of racism and inequality in the United States, the experience of being black in modern-day America, and the opposition of the overriding conservative, white narratives of Western painterly conventions. Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat drew from his ancestral background and infused his works with his own version of primitivism. This painting is frequently compared to Picasso’s Guernica, another History Painting in which the artist employed primitivism as an antidote to the conservative Western art world.

One of the words repeated over and over is “Mark Twain,” whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows Huck as he travels along the Mississippi River, and which was written 20 years after the abolishment of slavery as a scathing satire of the attitude towards racism in America. The repetition of “Mississippi” and “Negroes” are considered to be Basquiat’s way of hammering out the deeply traumatic and painful history of slavery and racism in the United States, until the words themselves are emptied of authority and meaning..

Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983. Courtesy Sotheby’s and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat’s Self-Portraiture and Symbols

Basquiat often presented young black heroic figures in his paintings, asserting their independence and strength and exploring what it means to be black in America. Appearing himself as Fig. 23. on the first panel of Undiscovered Genius, right above the title of the work, he both introduces the entire work and places himself within the narrative of the piece. He considers himself a “Fig.”, a statistic or symbol within the trajectory of history. The title furthermore hints at the artist’s recognition of his own rising fame and place within the cultural history of the United States, and the implicit ability to forge an alternate path transcending the narrative of slavery and oppression.

In the central panel, an anatomical deconstruction of a head peers through a viewfinder, juxtaposed with a panel containing a cow’s head and a rat, and another with two cow udders. As such, Basquiat graphically equates man with animal meat, even more explicitly and powerfully due to the “Per LB, 49¢” in between the dismantled head and one of the udders.

Basquiat detail
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (detail), 1983. Courtesy Sotheby’s and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat’s Instinctive Language

Basquiat once said: “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” This is evident in Undiscovered Genius, as his instinctual understanding of the language of abstraction merges powerfully and effortlessly with the histories and oral traditions of African-Americans and his own specific biography and distinctive perspective. The painting is a tour-de-force which redefined the genre of History Painting and remains one of Basquiat’s most iconic and important works.  

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more about Basquiat’s artistic production here:

MoMA

Sotheby’s

Artland

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