As a student at Williams, Chaédria LaBouvier ’07 promised herself that one day she would bring the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat to campus. Back then, she never could have foreseen the ways in which his potent work and her own life would intersect, culminating in the Williams College Museum of Art’s installment this fall of one of Basquiat’s most disquieting and rarely seen paintings, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). Here’s how she fulfilled her promise.
My father was an early collector of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s drawings. There were three above the sofa in our home in Dallas. They were on thin manila paper and had a lot of orange and red in them. To a 4-year-old,it looked like the drawings were done with crayons, and I remember wondering, with childlike arrogance, why the artist was such a big deal when I could have made them. My mother sold them when I was 8 or 9.
I came to Williams wanting to engage with Basquiat in creative and scholarly ways, but it was difficult to find source material on him. At the time, the art history department—and the larger world—wasn’t engaging him or his work. I knew my generation would catch up, and I wanted to be at the center when he had his renaissance. I spent my weekends and summers in Sawyer Library, watching interviews and reading out-of-print books about him. I traveled a lot to New York City, hanging out on the Lower East Side and in the Bowery, where I met people who knew Basquiat and were part of the ’80s art and club scenes. I even spoke with one of his former girlfriends before her death in 2011.
I graduated with a history degree and worked several jobs before deciding to pursue my dream of becoming a filmmaker. In 2013, as I was finishing my master’s degree in screenwriting at UCLA, I got news from home that my younger brother, Clinton Allen, had been killed by a police officer in Dallas. Clinton, who was unarmed, was shot seven times. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of devastation.
I took a year off before finishing at UCLA, but I put my career on hold to focus on activism addressing police brutality, pushing these conversations in meaningful ways through avenues I care about: journalism and art. My mother and I co-founded Mothers Against Police Brutality, a nonprofit that unites mothers who have lost their children to police violence and that advocates for accountability and change. We came to Williams in February 2015 for Claiming Williams to give a talk and facilitate workshops. The organizers asked me to come back if I wanted to do any programming in the future.
I’d just been in Toronto covering a major Basquiat retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario for ELLE magazine. There I saw Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). I was very familiar with it because Basquiat’s friends had told me how traumatic the painting was for him. But I’d never seen it in person, and it blew me away.
I told Sharifa Wright ’03, director of alumni diversity and inclusion at Williams, that I wanted to do a talk about Basquiat someday. She and I spent a couple of months figuring out what that might look like.
I knew the collector through mutual friends and shared with her my idea of showing Defacement at Williams, making the painting part of a larger conversation about black identity and police violence. She understood my vision and gave us the freedom to interpret the painting and create research where there is none.
So many of us—the collector, college and Williams College Museum of Art staff , and I—believe this is the most important painting right now in Basquiat’s body of work because of its immediacy. It was painted so soon after the death of Michael Stewart, but it could have been painted yesterday. It’s his most topical work at this moment for sure.
This project is deeply personal. It’s rooted in my childhood, in my academic interests, and in my family’s experience with police brutality. Because of Clinton, this project exists.
In Defacement, Michael Stewart could have been any black body. It circles back to Basquiat’s words to friends after Stewart’s death: “It could have been me. It could have been me.”
Chaédria LaBouvier ’07 is a writer, activist, and Basquiat scholar. She is co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality.