By Eugene Ankomah
The adventure of leading a workshop dedicated to Jean Michel Basquiat. For me, this was more than a workshop on Art, it had to essentially be connected to life. I wanted to impart concepts of freedom and the importance of ones individual voice, all via Jean Michel’s Basquiat and his attitude towards art.
This is my detailed account of the exciting Paint Jam Basquiat Event.
As an artist or creator myself, I am constantly and forever looking for opportunities, those special moments in life where I can once more impart what I feel are deeper truths about life using the power of Art. Perhaps as some would suspect, being an admirer of Basquiat’s work, I had perhaps drawn the opportunity upon myself through some sort of a mystical design by the universe, to being called to lead this workshop. Maybe it was just my love for Basquiat’s wild vision that had allowed it to happen. Maybe, it’s more basic, our works display certain visual and conceptual similarities; I was therefore very suitable for the task. Whatever the case who better to talk about, when discussing the power of the spontaneous, the instinctive power that lies within us all, or the power to think on the spot knowing and believing all answers to successful creation lie within. This workshop was dedicated to Basquiat’s vision, but to also celebrate his retrospective at the Barbican art gallery in London. This ‘Artist of the moment’ seems to grow in popularity year after year, with new generations of young artists and the public alike all arriving at the conclusion that his works have something to give, something that warms and wakes up the eyes. Something important, even if most fans aren’t aware specifically of what that “thing” is.
The latest aforementioned retrospective of his works at the Barbican Centre – in London, ended on the 28th January 2018. It was a blockbuster show than anything else, and a huge success too.
In my own mind and practice, I have a habit of often thinking of and breaking down the works of musicians and artists especially, with the purpose of dissecting, finding out the qualities of their work that helped to make it effective and successful. Furthermore, this mental process of mine also allows me to “pull out” from the life and works of these artists, lessons that are relevant, relatable analogies or examples of acts, habits or ways of thinking which I feel needs to be shared with everyone else, because they are about human truth. Beyond the obvious immediate power of Basquiat’s work, these were some of the deeper things I wanted to communicate and connect to the audience with.
I too, just like the guests attending this Paint Jam event had no idea as to where the event was taking place, until I think a day to the big day. You see, Paint Jam often keeps the location secret until a day to go, then its all revealed in an email to all those who have booked, of course increasing the excitement!
Upon arriving, we the team on the day took some time to set up over 70 easels, brushes, paint and other materials that I had requested. The DJ for the day for the event also arrived. I was intrigued as to the sort of music he would play. Since we were about to pay tribute to an artist from the 80’s. One who was interested in the following genres: bee pop, Jazz, classical and early rap music amongst others. Well this DJ did not disappoint at all, as he immediately ‘hit the floor running’ with early rap music, which filled and enveloped the space with a certain nostalgic feeling straight from the early 80’s.
As I stood watching the first group of participants trickle in, and then not long after, groups of more participants arriving at the large open warehouse – like space. The sense of excitement in the air could be cut with a knife. It was so obvious. As I looked around, I could also very much detect nervousness on the faces of these guests. It felt as if the audience had come with a burden, the burden of perhaps feeling we were going to judge them by expecting them to paint just like Basquiat or something – they were right, but perhaps not in the way they were thinking.
Walking around the space, I started to talk to individuals, soaking in their nerves, but also gauging their expectations. I re assured a lot of them, all those nerves would come to good use very soon.
Mind you, although I have seen and experienced Basquiat’s work before in London, I myself had just seen the popular Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican just the previous night. So you can imagine I was truly ready to off load all the very fresh sensations unto the crowd. I started by bringing the groups attention to the large projection Paint Jam had set up, showing a beautiful mix of Basquiat’s paintings, backed up by samples of my own work from my recently released Brain Wave series of digital works. All these images would act as a sort of direct visual inspiration to nicely back up my instructions. We also spoke a bit about the history of the time and his background. We went through some mark making exercises to help release tension and nerves, whilst reminding the audience Basquiat’s work always had a kind of nervous energy about it, but that precisely was part of its charm. In his work we see incomplete shaky lines and jabs at the canvas.
Within 20 to 30mins of these exercises, I could tell most of the nerves had settled down, not completely, but just enough. There were more smiles, greater interaction between the participants and from what I was seeing, “Basquiat” was being channeled through the use of color, lines and in some cases his sense of aggression in these early experiments. I was reasonably pleased.
It was important that as the participants worked, I would use my loud but subtle voice on the microphone to gently advocate bravery over fear, instinct over caution and even as I mentioned earlier, encourage them with analogies of why taking risks with ones vision is so important-well at least with art anyway. Here is one of my favorite analogies I used as a way of assisting the mind to let go. Because really, there is nothing to loose!
Imagine you stand on the edge of a cliff, and you are being asked to jump off, in order to get to the bottom, where you will discover even more about yourself, your dreams, the success you seek. It does not make sense to you, as the bottom only seems to represent certain death, or at least broken limbs. But yet, you decide to jump, out of some sort of faith, believing all will be well as you make your way down. In the middle of your flight, about half way down you start feeling uncomfortable on your sides, not long after a set of wings spring out of your body, wings you never knew existed, you are shocked, but whilst still getting closer to what appears to be the hard ground. Suddenly, you are lifted and feel this wonderful sensation. Somehow, your landing is although dramatic and exciting, it’s also managed to be nothing but soft, safe and certain.
That analogy was again used as I told of the raw inspirations and “risk taking” qualities behind Basquiat’s work. Apart from other notable artists or painters he admired like: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Picasso and Jean Dubuffet (amongst others), he also took to expressing his anger and dismay at what he felt had been historical and current injustice of the time; but also personal experiences connected to racism or even the betrayal he felt from the immediate people around him. The concept and encouragement behind the mark making and scribbling seem to work very well.
After a short break that gave the participants the opportunity to walk around seeing each others work, complimenting each other as well as admiring others – with prosecco and nibbles in hand. It was time to get a little more “serious”, albeit the Basquiat type of way.
The first had been about the beauty and strength of loose mark making and free thinking. Now, the second half was more to do with the social, the personal or the outer (outside of ourselves).
I wanted the very enthusiastic audience to become more aware of all the fun, visceral influences, or the immediate environment, the “street energy” we see in Basquiat’s work – which is made up of rough unpretentious child like marks, filled with speed, passion, texture, even layering, but also done with intent. I wanted to direct the audience to become more aware of their own surroundings and how that was integral to Basquiat’s style. For example, how the look and texture of old torn posters in the streets wound find their way to being converted into his art as a significant aspect of it, through painting and drawing.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, music played a big part of Basquiat’s production process. Once the participants got going again, our dj immediately started releasing sounds early 80’s grove, including tracks from: the early fundamental stages of rap music, pop and underground sounds of the time. This was important, as music encourages and distracts the mind from over thinking, as if it attacks the subconscious, bringing it to the fore and allowing the true senses and emotions to reflect in ones creation.
I could tell within 15 minutes that the works being made – now on canvas were more playful and intentional too. Words were being integrated, the compositions more wild. I was even beginning to see Basquiat’s famous image of the crown being referenced. It was also beautiful to see others using their own invented symbols and a bit of text in their pieces. The faces of the group lifted and lightened, bodies more relaxed. I continued to encourage. Getting them to step out of their perceived comfort zones and to keep pushing for greater breakthrough.
I remember watching a young lady in her mid 20’s near where I stood with the mic, creating such “careless” carefree looking scribbles, and I remember feeling like Yes ‘that’s it’. Her painting altogether went through about three changes in the end, as she kept layering one composition on top of the next, creating quite a dense painting surface- that I relate to how life builds up on our experiences over and over again before we “come to get it”. In fact there were many effective paintings in that room that day and strong in similar ways. It was also great to notice the participants still taking pauses to look at and get inspiration from the projected slide show, as mention earlier.
As we came closer to finishing it all off, overall T- shirts given to the guests in the beginning had been suitably covered in paint, surely a sign of the busy activity. However, we had one more surprise up our sleeves.
In true Samo style (Basquiat’s street alter ego) we had prepared a wall in a room next door, where guests could let out their inner “secret street art”. The intention here was simple. For the audience to engage in painting, and statement writing, just as Samo did in the lower east side of Brooklyn at the beginning stages of Jean Michel’s effort to get noticed as an artist and poet.
The participants loved this room. It was almost as if the energy in the event had moved to a whole new level. We of course continued to push the audience one step further, this time to incorporate personal meaningful text and poetry, just like Basquiat’s Samo, especially if it was social commentary.
With about 45minutes to the end of the event, it was quite an unbelievable sight to see so many wonderful dramatic pieces of art on the paint splattered easels. Even better was the smiles and laughter heard across the room as the participants went around looking at and admiring each other’s work. Positivity and compliments to each other filled the space. It was quite magical to watch new friendships being formed around the paintings. It is safe to say also that by now all that nervous energy had been successfully transferred into the beautiful works of art around us. I had a chance to talk to two of the participants.
Melissa Web – “Absolutely loved the Baquiat Paint Jam. As a practicing artist, Eugene’s direction helped me let go of restrictions I’d placed on myself and express myself in a way I hadn’t done for years! It was so fun and welcoming to all levels and abilities. Eugene was so encouraging and motivating for everyone, helping them quickly loosen up and confidently paint in the style of Basquiat”.
Jordan Bailey Smith – “We bought the Paint Jam tickets as a gift to my partner’s grandmother. My partner and I are keen art lovers and in particular Jean Michel Basquiat’s work. Upon arrival we walked into a big office space, where we could see a DJ, projections on the wall, lights and canvases everywhere…The in house artist for the Day was Eugene Ankomah, someone we hadn’t known too much about, but had seen his work and how closely it tied with Basquiat’s. Within only a few minutes there, Eugene came over to talk to us and we had a great conversation about his art and the event itself. We were taken aback by the relaxed nature and how approachable he was…he was great at leading the class, getting people involved and explaining Basquiat’s work.”
Something else had taken place without me immediately realizing till later. I had long put the microphone down and was busy taking photos of the activity and chatting away to various participants, mainly about Basquiat’s work and the relevance of his work in our contemporary world. I was in other words “Paint – Jamming” with the crowd. There had been no need for further instructions from me, everyone was having a great time, some dancing and painting at the same time. Others still focused but nodding to the cool sounds of the 80’s. By now, there was a free flow between the main space and the room with the wall, as these newly christened artists served up the spirit of Jean Michel with prosecco in one hand and paint brush in the other.
This is how I would describe the power of art, as experienced on that day. “Art is like a gate way to a more conscious, meaningful way of life. A life that is more complete once you find a voice, your voice that helps you shout louder your truth”.
I wanted the audience to leave feeling like they had taken in something that could enlighten their own lives, to first free themselves mentally, to dare, to trust and act. In a sense to impart the DNA of freedom into their own make up, using the feverish but meaningful energy of Basquiat, his techniques, observations, commentary, concerns, his fight against racism and the class system and other injustice, all as a spring board and a leap into finding their better selves. It was about having fun, whilst not being judged. It was about being playful with our thinking and making, been intentional whilst ultimately allowing each participant to realize they have a voice, and to use that voice in helping to achieve a more better, more conscious way of being and living, knowing all our voices matter – just like Basquiat practiced through his art. I think he would have been well proud!