Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983.

The post-graffiti moment in 1980s New York City marked the transition of street art from city walls and subway trains onto canvas and into the art world. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) became the galvanizing, iconic frontrunner of this transformational and insurgent movement in contemporary American art, which resulted in an unprecedented fusion of creative energies that defied longstanding racial divisions. Writing the Future features his works in painting, sculpture, drawing, video, music and fashion, alongside works by his contemporaries—and sometimes collaborators—A-One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee, Rammellzee and Toxic.

Throughout the 1980s, these artists fueled new directions in fine art, design and music, driving the now-global popularity of hip-hop culture. The exhibition illuminates how this generation’s subversive abstractions of both visual and verbal language—including neo-expressionism, freestyle sampling and wildstyle lettering—rocketed their creative voices onto the main stages of international art and music. Writing the Future will be the first major exhibition to contextualize Basquiat’s work in relation to his peers associated with hip-hop culture. It also marks the first time Basquiat’s extensive, robust and reflective portraiture of his Black and Latinx friends and fellow artists has been given prominence in scholarship on his oeuvre.

Notable among those works is the much-revered painting Hollywood Africans (1983, Whitney Museum of American Art), which lionizes Toxic and Rammellzee, the legendary artist/philosopher who is also represented with multiple works in Writing the Future, and with whom Basquiat created the prophetic, influential, and talismanic rap song “Beat Bop.” The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue produced by MFA Publications, edited by co-curators Liz Munsell, the MFA’s Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art, and writer and musician Greg Tate. 

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