Many eyes popped in disbelief when Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Untitled’ skull painting broke art auction price records last year.
It sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s art auction, making it the sixth most expensive artwork ever sold at auction at the time.
It went to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who is making news now because he’s putting Basquiat’s 1982 work on display at the Brooklyn Museum later this month.
The painting is expected to attract large crowds, but not just because the late African-American artist of Caribbean descent has a significant fan-base. Nor will it be because people understand the emotive power of the piece or the artist’s explosive use of colour, line and design.
It will partly be because Basquiat’s painting joined what New York Times described as ‘the rarefied $100 million-plus club’.
Apparently only 10 other artworks have broken that $100 million mark. That puts Basquiat in the same league with world-class artists like Pablo Picasso and the British painter Francis Bacon.
The ‘Untitled’ skull painting is not the first work by Basquiat that Mr Maezawa owns. The 41-year-old founder of Japan’s large online fashion mall, Zozotown bid and won the artist’s large Horned Devil at an art auction held the previous year at Christie’s. For that piece, he only paid $57.3 million.
But Mr Maezawa, who is also founder of the Contemporary Art Foundation, doesn’t plan to simply keep his Basquits on walls back in his hometown of Chiba, Japan. He has told the media he intends to one day establish an art museum in Chiba.
Kenyan art lovers
But first, he apparently feels he has a higher calling which is to expose the world to the artist’s works. Both were painted in 1982 using oil sticks and spray paint. But for more than 30 years, he’s said the works were ‘unseen’.
Back in 2016 when he obtained the Horned Devil, he was already intent on loaning (for a fee) that first Basquiat to institutions around the world.
But having won the bid on the “Untitled’ Skull and clearly having generated even more of a buzz in the art world over it, Mr Maezawa chose to premier Basquiat’s Skull over his Devil in New York in this new year.
Why all this news may be of some interest to Kenyans is not necessarily because they appreciate the colourful artistry of this African-American painter who started his career as a self-taught graffiti painter.
Nor is it because they have seen art by the Kenyan painter Ehoodi Kichapi which bears some resemblance to Basquiat’s million dollar work. (In 2017 Kichapi had successful exhibitions at One Off Gallery and at The Attic.)
Many Kenyans are more keen on making money than making art. Not many believe that making art can be a way of also making money.
But Mr Maezawa has illustrated how not only the artist but the owner of the art can make money from the creative process.
Sadly, Basquiat died of a drug overdose at age 27 in 1988, so he is not around to enjoy the dollars that his art earned him.
Nonetheless, Kenyans can at least see the potential the creative process has if only parents would encourage their children to express their imaginative powers freely.
In the past, Kenyans have been told that buying a work of art need not be only to hang on their walls or stand in their gardens or at their front doors.
They have been encouraged to see the purchase of art as an ‘investment’. That is to look at a painting or a sculpture like a stock that can rise or fall in the art market which in Kenya is rapidly developing now that Nairobi has its own annual art auction launched several years ago by the Circle Art Gallery.