10/7/16 - 1/29/17

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Reading Room

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) becomes the centerpiece of a series of conversations about police brutality, black identity, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basquiat painted Defacement after his friend and fellow artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City police in September 1983. Today when the reality of extrajudicial violence against black Americans is at the forefront of national conversations, Defacement forces us to recognize the historical reality of these events. The presence of Basquiat’s painting also challenges us to explicitly engage with American contemporary culture and politics. By reading and rereading Basquiat’s work through various perspectives, we begin the process of understanding what this work meant to the artist when it was created and what it means today.

The Reading Room

In 1889, benefactor Liza Field envisioned “a literary resort for students” in Lawrence Hall. She wished to “give a more homelike aspect” to the college library, now WCMA’s Rotunda. Two small additions opened in 1890. We have taken the Field gallery and returned it to its original purpose as a Reading Room—a place for study and contemplation, and a site for collaborative conversations and intimate events.

Hosted Conversations 

During this installation, WCMA’s Reading Room became a platform for public dialogue. Individuals, classes, student groups and organizations from the Williams Community developed and hosted the following conversations and events in the space.

Williams College Professor Merida Rua and students in Introduction to Urban Studies: Shaping and Living the City
Merida Rua, Professor of Latino/a Studies and American Studies and her Introduction to Urban Studies course consider Basquiat’s representation of the urban environment alongside and in contrast to those by other artists in WCMA’s collection including ASCO, Margaret Bourke-White, and Aaron Siskind.

Williams College Student Groups Vista and the Black Student Union
Members of the Williams College community are invited to a discussion co-led by Vista and the BSU about police brutality and Black Lives Matter as reflected in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). Topics to be discussed include the erasure of afro-latinx identities, what Non-AfroLatinx allyship means, the difference between support and appropriation of activism, and the violence of anti-blackness in Latinx culture.

Williams College Student Groups SOCA (Students of Caribbean Ancestry), Sisterhood, and Society of the Griffins
Members of the Williams College community are invited to a discussion led by SOCA, Sisterhood and The Society of the Griffins that explores Basquiat’s painting through the lens of Black visibility. Basquiat’s claim on hearing the death of Michael Stewart that “it could have been me,” echoes the feelings of Black Americans with regard to the plethora of Black deaths at the hands of police. The group will consider questions such as: How does this piece represent how Blacks are seen in America today? How does police brutality contribute to and fit into the larger framework of institutional racism? How does immortalizing the death of Black people contribute to the memory of their life? On the other hand, how does this immortalization desensitize us from the abhorrent abuse perpetrated on African-Americas?

Williams College Professor Christina Simko and Students in the Sociology Class: American Social Dramas
In SOC 328: American Social Dramas, we examine the performative dimension of US politics. Can social and political events be understood as “dramas” that take shape in accordance with familiar cultural scripts? How can literary and dramatic genres such as romance, irony, comedy, and tragedy help us understand contemporary political narratives? As part of a larger conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement, we will consider the role that both art museums as institutions and works of art more generally can play in political protest and contention.