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