By Nyame-kye Kondo
Special to the AFRO
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a contemporary multimedia artist who is known for his trailblazing contributions to the Neo-Expressionist movement that swept through New York City in the 1980’s. Born to parents of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent in 1960, Basquiat’s vivid art was reflective of his upbringing in Brooklyn, as well as the socio-political climate of America- breaking cultural, professional and social barriers with his approach to art and use of themes surrounding Black power.
“The Black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with Black people in them,” Basquiat once said when commenting on his artwork.
The biography for Basquiat on Artsy.com describes his style as “obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery.” Basquiat’s unique style and groundbreaking ideas solidified him as a key figure in the global art canon long after his passing in 1988 at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose. Still relevant in pop culture and with a film starring Jeffrey Wright (1996) about his life, Basquiat continues to influence and inform future generations on a colossal scale.
One such artist that gained inspiration from Basquiat is my brother, Washington D.C. Native, Mensa Kondo.
Beginning his early training at the now defunct Children’s Studio School and later furthering his studies at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Corcoran, Kondo is an accomplished artist in his own right. The AFRO was able to catch up with Mensa before he set out for an art mission in Germany.
AFRO: What kind of artist would you consider yourself to be?
MK: I’m a fine artist who mostly works with two-dimensional mediums, however, I am multifaceted.
AFRO: How old were you when you learned about Basquiat and what was your initial impression of his work?
MK: I had heard about Basquiat maybe back when I was 10 years old, when I was attending the Children’s Studio School, but I can’t be so sure now. At first glance, I liked how playful his work was.
AFRO: How has Basquiat’s style informed your practice?
MK: Jean’s style informed my practice simply by his approach to using Layers; but in theory only. I say, ‘but in theory only,’ because it is my intention to absorb concepts of all the artists whose work I enjoy without consciously imitating them. When I see their work, I understand the thought form under and behind the work.
AFRO: What do you think Basquiat’s living legacy is?
MK: I believe that Jean’s living legacy is that he is the most imitated artist to ever bless the minds of Earth’s modern masses. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some artists who have actually surpassed Jean’s style in a genuine way. But on the other hand, there are TONS of artists who never suffered for their work a day in their entire life, who look at imitating the styles of living/ transitioned artists as an easy way to take the back door.
AFRO: What is the story of the jacket?
MK: When I was enrolled in the Corcoran School of Art and Design, I had a creative writing class for one of my English credits. Jeff, was this older dude who was from California and sometimes during class he’d express his view on the New York art scene in the 80’s. Naturally it led to me and him having a few conversations in and out of class. As the semester began to wind down, It was revealed to me by Jeff that he used to hang out with Basquiat and that when he passed on, he moved in with Jean’s last studio assistant. Furthermore Jeff revealed to me that he ended up with some photos of Jean as well as his jacket. Obviously I was tripping out because at 18 I had already begun going up to New York City to hit up art shows as well as getting into other cool situations in Brooklyn, so New York City was clearly in my heart.
With him being a Committed Buddhist and minimalist, Jeff expressed to me that he burned most of his stuff every year and he would only keep one Plate, one fork… you get it.
Fast forward to a time when me and Jeff hit up a pizza spot for lunch in Georgetown. It was the beginning of spring and the semester was winding down, I ultimately knew I was not going to attend the Corcoran for the fall semester because I refused to get a private loan, so I was chilling.
Jeff told me ‘Hey man, get whatever you want,’ and so I did. While we sat there and talked, Jeff seriously sat there and told me “Hey man, you know, I feel like I have just been holding on to this and that it doesn’t belong to me. You know, I feel like if Jean was still alive you two would be brothers, you remind me of him so much. I feel like this belongs to you.”
AFRO: And I’m guessing the rest is history?
MK: History for sure.