Basquiat Faces the Games

Olympic Rings, 1985

A collaborative painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol features Warhol’s highly stylized take on the Olympic symbol of the five rings against their traditional white background. Superimposed, just off center, is a strong image of a Black face done in Basquiat’s freehand, graffiti-like style.

These two socially minded Pop icons incorporated imagery and text from contemporary culture into their personal expressions. During the summer of 1984, the Olympic Games were in Los Angeles, the first time they were hosted in the United States in half a century. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was running for reelection and his policies continued to marginalize African American and poor communities.

In Olympic Rings, 1985, the face can be understood to represent African American athletes from past Olympic events. Detached from its body, able to participate in the games but reduced to a symbol, the simple shape echoes the tight knit rings. As a repeating element throughout the composition the black face and the ubiquitous emblem surrounding it take on the same meaning: internationalism, continuity and unity. The floating head embodies thought – both innovation and memory. More than a tribute, the artists make a larger statement about Black history and resistance.

By Heather Powell

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  1. Mira Weisenthal

     /  November 10, 2012

    What an interesting work! In fact, a couple of other symbolic interpretations and visual representations spring to my mind looking at it:

    1) The black ring to the immediate left of the head reminds me of the large hoop earrings worn by the African women I have seen my whole life in magazines and on TV here in the U.S. — a generalized representation and flattening of rich culture.

    Another interpretation of this juxtaposition (the head with the black ring) is of an (enormous) gun barrel.

    It seems that this circle is made to stand out – both in stark contrast to the other circles around the head and as a strange element within the compositional whole. For this reason, I believe it has special symbolic significance, separate from the larger symbolism of the Olympic circles.

    2) The dark areas within some of the rings would suggest holes in the nationalist values upheld by the Olympic games — the seedy underbelly of this supposed celebration of worldliness and cultural inclusiveness.

    3) A couple of the circles were painted with dents. This might be another symbol of the darkness, or decay, underlying the facade of “greatness” the rings are meant to represent. The repetition of the rings across the painting – not haphazardly, but properly linked as real rings would be – seem to suggest chains, and therefore a reference to slavery.

    Do you see different symbolism?


  2. Jessica G.

     /  November 18, 2012

    Heather’s comment about the Olympic Rings, 1985 painting representing African American athletes from past Olympic events being reduced to a symbol is a thought-provoking interpretation of this painting. The interlocking Olympic rings are supposed to represent unity and nations coming together, and it is interesting how throughout history the Olympics has served as a stage for political statements. There have been bans and boycotts, such as when the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from the Tokyo Games in 1964 because of its apartheid policy or when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. With this year’s Games, Saudi Arabia received pressure from the Olympics Committee to allow female athletes to compete for the first time.

    One thing about the Olympics that always bothers me is how many people are displaced from their homes by the development projects leading up to the event. It is estimated that 1.5 million people were displaced by preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and residents in Brazil are already being pushed to the outskirts to make way for stadiums, hotels, and highways in preparation for the 2016 Olympics and 2014 World Cup events to be hosted there. This seems to be common practice for countries hosting the Olympics, yet no nations have boycotted the Games over this human rights issue despite the fact that it completely undermines the purpose and spirit of the event. To relate it back to the Basquiat/Warhol painting, how much of the Olympics is merely a symbolic mask for underlying issues that are pushed aside?


  3. Noel M

     /  November 26, 2012

    I really like this piece Olympic Rings, and the way that is makes me consider specific social elements that I often overlook during the Olympic Games. Competing as a professional athlete is in many communities considered to be a highly-esteemed or position. Competing for one’s country represents the ultimate honor. I would argue those sentiments are magnified during an occasion like the Olympics or the World Cup when (theoretically) every nation has an opportunity to be represented.
    When considering details of support (or lack thereof) systems available for Olympic athletes the ‘honor’ can seem relatively obtrusive. Many athletes spend their time and resources training for the opportunities to compete on such a massive scale as the Olympics. I was surprised to learn that the majority of those athletes do not receive payments for their performances. Salaries and bonuses vary from country to country for the Olympics games, most of which (including the US) reserving $0 for Olympic competitors The United States Olympic Committee awards $10,000, $15,000 and $25,000 for bronze, silver and gold medals respectively. All winning does is increase the likelihood for corporate sponsorship.
    The picture makes me consider this social tradition for the Olympics that showcases, but doesn’t support athletes. The depiction of the isolated head among the Olympic rings makes me evaluate an attitude that says ‘we want the athlete who is devoid of any public social, economic or civil baggage’ to represent our country. Occasionally we get to view a ‘redemption story’ from our television sets about a particular athlete who was able to overcome disparities and make it to the Olympic stage. But even then they are depicted in a post-conflict stage of their career. In considering the billions of dollars that is spent on the Olympics Especially for the hosting country the Olympics seem to paint a very clean and uniform picture. Visually undesirable neighborhoods are cleaned up, pushed back or cleared out in anticipation for hosting duties. The picture by Basquiat and Warhol showed less than perfect symmetry. Shapes and colors in contract to an Olympic system that doesn’t seem to have room to consider social diversity or conflict.


  4. Talia Pedraza Avila

     /  May 14, 2013

    Sports and the Olympics have been increasingly racially biased. Here’s a link to the documentary produced in Mexico after the 1968 Olympics, famous for two black men winning first and second place at the 200 meters race, and standing with their black gloves as black panthers in the podium.



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