Writer and curator Chaédria LaBouvier is the first Black solo curator to launch an exhibition at the Guggenheim focused on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork Defacement.
Defacement was created as a response to the murder of burgeoning New York City artist Michael Stewart who was killed by the NYPD in 1983. The painting is considered to be Basquiat’s most personal work as it explores Black identity with respect to police brutality and corruption. In this exclusive interview with Morgan Jerkins, LaBouvier discusses carrying the weight of that responsibility and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Jerkins: Chaédria, for those who are not privy to the art world, how is it that Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is so well-known, is just now getting his first exhibition in a Manhattan museum in 27 years?
Chaédria LaBouvier: There has been a really sad but virulent belief amongst many people in the art world, particularly academia and the museum world, that Basquiat’s work could not stand up to a great deal of rigorous inquiry. I can’t tell you how many times some of the quote-unquote brilliant minds of the art world would say to me with a straight face, “Oh I never really paid much attention to Basquiat’s work. I didn’t think there’s that much there,” and not bat an eye. I would be left thinking, “Wow, that is a lot to unpack.” They weren’t embarrassed at all; they thought it was all very normal.
In your speech to the press, you said that the artwork Defacement changed your life. Can you take me back to that pivotal moment?
Well, I don’t think there’s a pivotal moment per se. I was absolutely dumbfounded that no one had done this research, and that this was a whole chapter of art history that…