The Project at The Guggenheim!

Kind of :)

On Tuesday, June 27th, I'll be in conversation with Nancy Spector, chief curator of the Guggenheim, and the artist Nona Faustine as a part of the Guggenheim's series, "The Summer of Know".  It starts at 6:30PM.

We'll be talking about a number of things, and looking at the conversations around the Dana Schutz painting, Whiteness and White supremacy in culture and the art world, Basquiat and Defacement (of course!), and the complexity and hyper specificity of Nona's work on New York's history of slavery and Black womanhood. 

I've been a true fan of these women from afar for a minute, so it's so cool to be in conversation with them. This may seem a bit strange, but I think that the word to describe Nancy's and Nona's work is just breathless, because that's its effect. As an art studio and art history student, I've been so inspired by Nancy's seminal and defining curatorial work on Felix Gonzales-Torres, and her work on such provocative and avante garde artists.

Nona's work has been just as equally as flooring. I discovered her about two years ago when Elle shared a magnificent interview of her work, written by the very talented Ashley C. Ford ( a writer that you'll definitely want to look up). Her work is so searingly explicit, that it summons a courage that you either have to face or acknowledge your inability to do so. Nona's work is all about  erased histories, Black women, and using her body -- a large one wrapped in dark, Black skin -- to confront what hasn't been faced. 

If you're in New York City, it will be a great talk, and I would love to meet some of you that follow The Project in real life! I'll be staying after the talk in the Cafe area. Please let me know if you'll be there!

- Chaédria

P.S. I have gotten all of the emails about the Basquiat auction, I've just have been thinking of the best response to answer all of the grappling questions. I will post soon about that, and my apologies for not responding to every email. 

Happy Birthday, Michael Stewart

Today, May 9th, is Michael Stewart’s 59th birthday. He was born at 8:33 PM on this day, in 1958, in Brooklyn, where he grew up, and lived all of his life.  I thought it was important to celebrate his life, as so much of the work and research around Defacement is centered on Stewart’s death. I’d like to think that Michael is more than the two weeks that led up to his death. His family certainly hasn’t forgotten him. Here’s a baby picture of Stewart, less than a year old.

  Michael Jerome Stewart, as a baby. Courtesy of the Stewart family . 

Michael Jerome Stewart, as a baby. Courtesy of the Stewart family

Gorgeous baby, right? He looks very much like his mother, especially in his baby photo. As a historian, one of the hardest parts of your job is to bring to life people and events that have long since passed. You have to find a way to bring memory to life and making that connection, that "a-ha moment" is crucial. It's not only inspiration, but it keeps your humanity connected to what you're doing, that for all of the intellectual precedents that research can make, you must remember that you're researching human lives that were completely and totally lived. Connecting the physical resemblance between Michael Stewart and literally the body that he came from, was one of those moments for me.  It’s certainly important to remember that Michael Stewart was a baby, a young boy, a member of a family that loved him – and still loves him.

In acknowledging his birthday, it’s also acknowledging the unique thread of coincidence that has run through this entire project. Keith Haring’s birthday is a mere five days before Michael’s. His grandmother, whom he was very close to, and spent many childhood summers with in Kentucky, was born May 6, the day after one of my grandmothers.  Whatever you might call these parallels of Fate, they run rampant throughout this story and history.  

One of the challenges of The Project is to make sure that Michael Stewart is more than his death, and that he is not relegated to consideration only when Basquiat is mentioned. It's also about finding those pieces of his short life, putting them together, and making them as nuanced and clear as possible. Of all of the key players in this history, though he is the center of it, he is perhaps the least known. 

The hope is that over the next two years, we can get a closer look at who he was, and how important he was to the East Village art scene of the early 80s. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many artists, publicly and privately, have created commentary on his death. 

And yet, it's also important that the public know who he was. I was not even alive when he was born, but in the process of speaking with his family and friends about his personality, the outlines of a picture emerges. A warm, yet shy person. Someone who was not of many words, but let it be known what he thought. Someone who had the ability to compartmentalize his Brooklyn home life, and his Manhattan downtown life, not so much out of secrecy, but in an attempt to find himself. He seems to have been a private person, intensified by the mid twenty-something pressure to figure it out. Growing into yourself is always such a messy process, for everyone. It's so hard and important to remember that. All of these kids, Michael, Jean-Michel, Keith – no one was older than 25 years old. They were all babies. And in that context, it's easier to see Michael Stewart as a Pratt student (he was taking classes there, but not fully matriculated), figuring out his life, and not as the martyr that he later became. On one hand, Stewart resolutely wanted to become a photographer and artist, while also working as a dancer and a model. The latter is an obvious point, as he had the kind of big eyes that are too often typecast as melancholy, but the right photographer would have known what to do with them. I would like to think that he would have figured out what to do with those big, thinking eyes. I am still looking for his art work, so that we can see that side of him as well.

michael stewart public photo.jpg

Basquiat's Defacement: The Project is not the first to remember Michael Stewart. There have been many before me that carried his torch while I was (literally) still teething. Franck Goldberg made a mini-documentary, Who Killed Michael Stewart? it seems in the late 80s/early 90s. It's worth a look, if only to what the case and story looked like at that time. (It's on Vimeo.)

I hope that at the conclusion of this project and its collaborations, that we have a fuller idea of who Michael Stewart is. That his Wikipedia page doesn't just have his death date in full, but his birth date as well. It would be a significant symbolism, that our history and memory are doing a better job of remembering this pivotal life.  

Happy Birthday Michael Stewart. 

Happy Birthday, Keith Haring

Happy Birthday, Keith Haring!       

Yesterday was May 4th, and what would have been Keith Haring’s 59th birthday. I didn’t have an opportunity to write earlier, as I’ve been knee deep into work, deadlines, proposals and other works, but I wanted to acknowledge not just Keith Haring on his birthday day, but his connection to this project. And to celebrate his life. There's a funny thing about creating a project in which is centered on death, and the inspiration and people at the center have gone forward to the next stage of the Life journey. That can be hard, especially when it seems that not much has changed. But, in those moments, it's important to remember that the gifts that we're left – because this work is definitely a gift – are because they lived. And they lived, incandescently. Years later, we're still in the glow of the embers. 

  Keith Haring at ACT UP City Hall Protest. ©John Penley, Tamiment Library, NYC

Keith Haring at ACT UP City Hall Protest. ©John Penley, Tamiment Library, NYC

Although the project is named Basquiat’s Defacement and is centered on Michael Stewart’s death, Keith Haring is inextricably linked to the painting on too many levels to name in this post. As I currently understand it, he named the painting (further research could prove this to be wrong) and what we know for sure, he commissioned the gold, gilded frame that has become a part of the painting itself. And one is left to wonder what effect it had on him to have Defacement above his bed had on him; in 1985, Haring executed his own painting to memorialize Stewart, Michael Stewart – USA for Africa

  Michael Stewart - USA for Africa (1985), ©The Keith Haring Foundation  

Michael Stewart - USA for Africa (1985), ©The Keith Haring Foundation 


Michael Stewart’s death deeply affected Haring; I’m working to substantiate claims that Haring donated most of the money to Michael Stewart’s legal fund. In Keith Haring’s diaries, he talks about the injustice of Michael Stewart's killers getting away, scot-free. His private anguish was such that, it warranted commentary in Andy Warhol's diary entry for September 29, 1983. "And Keith was ranting and raving about this Black graffiti artist that's in the papers now because the police killed him – Michael Stewart. And Keith said that he's been arrested by the police four times, but that because he looks normal they just sort of call him a fairy, and let him go. But this kid was killed, he had the Jean-Michel look – dreadlocks."

There continues to be a lot to unpack here, and is a part of the research and the work that needs to be done. But on this post, I'd like to keep it focused on Keith Haring's work. 

Haring's reaction to Michael Stewart's death was a reaction that was not only personal – by most accounts, they knew each other, but how well, it's still unclear – but was also consistent with politics. And it's an interesting contrast to Jean-Michel Basquiat's political commentary on the canvas, especially Defacement, which was not meant to be viewed or seen publicly. There are many complex reasons as to why Basquiat may have made that decision. It was certainly easier for Haring to leverage White privilege to speak openly about such a highly charged case of police brutality, than it was for Basquiat, a young Black man who had to manage the ever tricky balance of being The Only (Black person in a space), and the pressure of representation and provocation. 

The well-received 2014 de Young exhibition, "Keith Haring: The Political Line", has helped a new generation understand just how radical – and in your face – Haring's politics were in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. It's a conversation about his work that we need more of, especially in the time that we live in. In an era where the American president is condemning potentially millions of Americans to death with the repeal of Obamacare, we must think about how Ronald Reagan did the same thing in the 1980s when he refused to acknowledge AIDS as a crisis. The murder of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old boy shot in the head by a Dallas police officer, reminds us that Defacement isn't just in 1983. It's 2017. 

Art doesn't just help us endure; it is resistance, it is the path forward. Perhaps it is a bit rose-tinted of me to believe this, but I think that art and words from those that have gone before us are meant to get us through. They are meant to help us find our way to our humanity, when greed, hate, murder and upheaval seem to numb us to the world around us, and each other. I'd like to think that though its been 27 years since Keith Haring's death, that he made a way for even this moment. I feel this so strongly because of the foresight that he had in ensuring that Defacement would be safe and available for future generations to know what happened, and so that we don't forget Michael Stewart and what happened. 

Thank you Keith. Happy Birthday. 

  Keith Haring and Nina Clemente, © Andy Warhol, courtesy of Nina Clemente  

Keith Haring and Nina Clemente, © Andy Warhol, courtesy of Nina Clemente