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Arty 80's

Curatorial Statements

Despite their careers being cut short by early deaths, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring altered the trajectory of contemporary art. Both artists worked with themes, iconography, and styles that are still relevant today.


Harsh Collective invites you to examine the similarities in these categories that exist in its contemporary roster.

Eganam the Trumpet Player was first exhibited at Apartment 26, Njoku’s solo exhibition at Harsh Collective. The show carried the narrative of a family living in a New York City apartment building, and the gallery was renovated to recreate rooms of the apartment that are featured in the paintings. The first painting, Washington Street, named for the street where the exhibition took place, depicted the facade of the building where the story takes place. One window frames the silhouette of a man playing a trumpet. While preparing for the show, Njoku had the idea to hire a trumpet player for the exhibition to further immerse visitors into the setting of the series of works shown. After finding a trumpet player to perform, Njoku added a piece to the show, a portrait of the performer himself. 


Njoku’s work aims to celebrate Black joy and communities whereas Basquait tends to celebrate Black talent and accomplishment despite hardship and adversity; beauty in the face of struggle rather than in conjunction with happiness. While Basquiat returns to jazz to exemplify Black excellence, Njoku returns to Ankara fabrics, which are featured in the background of the work and on the clothing of the central figure. 


Trumpet by Basquiat likely depicts Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpet player and one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, who is frequently depicted in Basquiat's works along with the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Besides dabbling in jazz music, Basquiat’s painting techniques were inspired by jazz. Both artists here draw inspiration from other art forms and find that interdisciplinary exploration strengthens artistic development and experience. Basquiat once said, “art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.” Njoku used the work Eganam the Trumpet Player to decorate the space of the exhibition and the musician to decorate the opening itself. 

Basquiat commonly featured superheroes and cartoons in his works, among many other pop culture references. He appreciated comics for their ability to touch upon larger societal issues including discrimination and complex understandings of good and evil. When he was young, Basquiat even said that he wanted to be a cartoonist. Both he and Tara Lewis  return to these iconic and nostalgic characters with a critical lens. While Basquiat explores the conflicting nature of these characters and stories, Lewis reflects upon the characteristics that each of these figures symbolize: Batman’s stoicism and Robin’s loyalty. Lewis explores how we shape our own identities around popular culture and childhood icons.

March Madness by Gabriela Kramer strikes an undeniable compositional similarity to Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull). Upon initial inspection, Both works have backgrounds of pinkish-orange on the upper right corner and blue towards the left. Despite these areas of color being backgrounds, they are actually layered on top of the subjects of the work. Both artists created the central imagery and then added a background that helps to carve out the subject. 


Kramer explains that she titled the piece simply because March was a hectic month for her. While the composition itself is chaotic, different styles and mediums meld together and break apart, the abstract work possibly represents madness itself. The foreground coalesces into the shape of a skull, which Kramer uses more explicitly in other works such as The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit, or is it the Ghost? When interpreted as a head, the sporadic shapes and colors exist where the brain would. Kramer seems to be expressing an indescribable mess of thoughts and feelings – a madness. Similarly, Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) expresses a sense of confusion or indetermination. While the jaw and teeth are visible suggesting that the head is just a skull (visible only after skin and tissue have decomposed), the subject has eyes and hair, suggesting that it’s possibly depicting a live being. Skull was only added to the title of the piece after it sold. This addition is said to be a mistaken assumption that the artist was employing memento mori, so it’s unclear whether or not a living head is being depicted. Similarly to Kramer’s work, the area where the brain would exist in the figure is consumed by an entangled mass of shapes and colors. While up to interpretation, there is a claim to be made that each of these works represents a figure that explores the complexity of the human mind in both its beautiful and torturous natures.