weekend-readsCrush into These Blakk Feet

Laurence Lieberman

1.

                        Soaring at heart,
            dream kin they may be—Akyem and Basquiat—
                    though the pair never met: Ras Akyem’s ALTAR both
                        Requiem for the Dead
                    and post-mortem revival of the Black
        Haitian’s sizzling Raw art . . .
                        Three panels. A minimalist triptych
                    in black and white. Two finished versions. One, black-
            on-white-backdrop, is the foremost.
                    The other (reduced
                          detail, more simplified), white-on-black. See
both. Keep looking at one, the other,
        checking it out
                                          feeling your way—
            a bridge between them
. For one may turn
                    the other inside out, as an X ray reverses
                        our human body,
                    revealing to the doctor’s eye strange
        truth of hidden parts.
                        Black/White inversion—a comment on Race
                    (false dominance: who is on top, who now on bottom?)—
            cannot be lost on the looker . . .
                    The three tall panels
                        are thickly white-oil-covered. They mimic
                    white walls of run-down city buildings
                                          in slum backstreets

                              mostly ignored by police duos,
                                    where eye-scalding
            graffiti spreads like wild ivy vines across
                                    sheets of stone. Bold
    lettering travels at all angles,
                  unstoppable: words often misspelled or crossed-

                              out and respelled
            wrongly, some flickering with sparks
                    of defiance, genius, gutter jokes, true pain, or
                        grief. Where they abound,
                    urban sabotage reeks, for it stinks
            of entrails, fish rot,
                        and gunpowder blent . . . Much white space
                    in all three panels is crammed with those gray no-color
                scrawls, word parts that appear grooved,
                    dented or scraped
                        into textured white ooze with the pointy black
end of paint brush. Black under-painting
        below the white
                                    surface vaguely shows
            through, but blank white space still dominates . . .
                    Cursory first glance at the tripartite work reveals
                        three black SAMO heads
                    upborne near the center of each paintscape.
        Those heads, like shaman
                        masks at Carnival, are death skulls. Squarish
                    white eyeholes and sinister broad grins of white-toothed
            grillwork loom over those narrow
                    black jaws. Each death
                          mask hovers in space, neckless, suspended
                    between two black columns of tombstone.
                                            With Matisselike
                              spare economy, those fewest black
                                      lines and bars
                    hint a full monument propped over the still open
                                                  grave in each trio
            installment. They comprise a trinity
                              that adds up to one altar: ghoulish faces bobbing

                              like exhumed mock-
                  skulls of the martyred hero; or risen
                          image of his undying soul—perhaps bidden, coaxed,
                              to ascension by the act
                          of drafting the art work:    MAGICIAN
            GURU       SHAMAN
     listed
                              at lower right, alongside the last
                          tomb column, exhales overtones of necromancy, witchcraft
                  from the trancelike cast of square eyes
                          aglow in those dream-
                              stark heads. They could be paleolithic faces
        lifted intact from cave walls . . .
            The altar piece
                                              speaks to us, mostly,
                  in top-to-bottom sweeps. But each mask, becapped
                    with its floating halo of KROWN of thorns, shimmers
                          over those tombside
                    fragments which, in left-to-right progression
            across the three panel
                    units, come to resemble—more and more—
                    a human frame: from hips to ankles! And these secondary
            horizontal readings of triptych
                    are adroitly prompted
                          by a few crossover graffiti that span,
            or overlap, the hinges between panels:
                              CRUSH INTO THESE

                    BLAKK FEET, followed by the form
                              of actual man foot
            in the L-shaped bottom third left tombside,
                                        mimicking the colossal
    stone foot of Ramses. Man and monument
                    blent into a hybrid form at last, the whole series

                        building toward
        this magical fusion—hints of Basquiat’s
              Resurrection flashing here
. . . Two pairs of long
                    sinuous black bones
              round out the scattered black patches
    (oblongs, strips, and glary-eyed
                    jack-o’-lanterns), spaced over pervasive
              white oil portraiture. And SPARE PARTS is deeply etched
        above that far left bone set, as if
              to say: stray dug-up
                    bones of Basquiat’s skeleton—femurs, upper leg
thigh bones they may be—are kept
        in stock, salvaged
                                                  and at the ready,
            for use in art, like so many surplus car parts
              stored up for repairs. Ras Akyem plies an old bone
                    kit for refashioning
              broken lineaments of the honored dead—
        his precursors, ancient
                    or modern . . . This fantasia compiles graphic
              bio of the dead painter, rages to sum up his life story
and art with bare minimal images
              or least word scraps.
                    The more random or accidental they look,
              the more those hidden intensities shall
                                    come streaking out . . .

                        Quite a plunge Ras takes into risky
                                format—his prior
            best works aswirl with rich diversity of colors,
                                    and crammed with a full
    mosaic of textured detail. What cost
                    of Spirit to opt for wide sweeps of blanket WHITE.

2.

WORDS ARE STONES. Graffiti words keep filling the gaps and voids,
blanks, negative space. More
            and more, scrawled words must carry
the missing weight—
paint mass of former blocks of color. The few streaks
of tint, bold hue, flare out
starkly, and hurl a challenge at the black-on-white field
that would drive the color items away
        or send them diving down below white surface.
        Under-layers of orange, green, red
keep peeping out,

here & there. Blunt naked colors may weigh like tarnish on young
                                                               black martyr’s spirit, glares
                                          of disrespect for the dead. Mostly,
                                                                             Ras Akyem carries
        that full burden to express multitudes in Blacks & Whites . . .
                                        Perhaps three discrete sets
                  of offerings hang suspended, afloat, over each fractured
                                         silhouette of black altar and tomb frame.
                        One little cluster of magic words and fine-line
                                         amulets, per panel. Each set hovers
                                                                                    as if supported

on some invisible altar top: dream platter, shelflike, of unseen
hands. Offerings are held aloft,
              so many rich libations to be poured
for that teeming
Spirit . . . LEFT PANEL. The altar top presents a chess-board
                    pattern of crisscrossing
lines, not unlike smaller line-mesh that mimes a wide grimace
of teeth in the SAMO skulls poised up high.
        Two chess pieces—knight & king—appear: perhaps
        Basquiat’s knight has already trounced
cocksure White King
since knight is propped squarely on board, king shoved offsides
                                                        to the left. The Haitian artist
                         had won his end game with America, just
                                                                                before heroin
  overdose took him! That chess match replays his street-smart
                                                  agile moves to outwit
most art dealers and gallery bosses in his New York heyday …
                                    MIDDLE PANEL. Five-petaled red flower,
            pinwheel-shaped, lolls on its stem. Happy blossom
                                    of the Resurrection, it strongly hints
                                                                          all SAMO heads-

transfixed above-be true ascendant face of the noble dead man.
VOODOO printed to the flower’s
                  right, an arrow below points across
black altar column
to A. D., orange undercoat showing through the white.
                      These alphabets glimmer with
sparkles of some formula for raising the dead by Haitian
witchcraft, and bespeak promise of a saving
            afterlife for the martyred Ikon. Eerie nostalgias
            ripple back to childhood in his homeland …
Follow the arrow

across the panel break. Settle on that simplistic boat. Its one-
                                                        masted mini-sail puffed out
                              over a dugout shape seems to recall
                                                                        old papyrus boats
            sashaying down the Nile, slave ships of Middle Passage,
                                             and those exile vessels
    carrying Haitian boat people to America. TO EAST inscribed
                              above the tiny hull-sail back to your roots?
                     This transport craft, in turn, beckons overhead
                                      to little red car shaped like a child’s
                                                                             toy auto labeled

TIN, taking us full-throttle forward to our modem day. A vision
that sweeps with ease and grace
              from ancient Egypt and the African
Diaspora to both
artists’ present moment: subject and maker of triptych . . .
                 RIGHT PANEL. Moving clockwise
from lower left, a card-deck Black Spade x-d out like some
word blocks. (Don’t be fooled. Even Basquiat
        confessed he often drew xs or barred lines over
        graffiti words to catch more notice—
never to delete,

cancel out, or correct as a grammarian might.) That gamy spade
                                                      links up with the chess board’s
                         vanquished king, the spirit of gamesman-
                                                                               ship a key motif
              of both painters. Above the spade’s inverted heartshape,
                                                note a list of racial slur
words, common street epithets: SPADE  NEGROW  NIGGA  BLAKK
                                          A couple are crossed out as if street thug
                 is trying to choose among them—checking them
                                          off, one by one, to get it just right
                                                                                    for this occasion.

Alongside the list, find two dangled fishhooks atilt like lures
to catch some passing feeder,
            completing the contents of altar three.
Copyright logo,
appended over the hooks, a most telling clue: our painter,
                     himself, now claims all rights
of purchase. The viewer who nips the hooks and takes the bait,
as one who thinks he knows the true social
        heft—or racial bite—of slur words, shall be fooled.
        Snared like a caught fish! By image power,
Akyem reowns them

for his key design and art mission. Language, that double-edged
                                                        sword, is twisted. The words
                                lose their sting, taking on positive
                                                                            nuance—epithet
 or smudge now worn like badge of honor. Words of demeaning
                                          poison become war cries
to silence the abusers . . . A black square frame surrounds TAR
                                     within the word ALTAR of the painting’s
            title—center panel, bottom. And smears of black,
                                cagily faking sloppy or careless craft,
                                                                        run like nosebleed

from the TAR-block down, as if dripping quick off canvas bottom,
exposing bright under-paint
              flecks of green. Streaks of whole color leap
out at the eye—
like random ink blots spattered on white backdrop. They steer
                    the inquiring beholder’s
search for meaning, answers to those riddles set in motion
by leading players in the picture bio . . .
      A gold-orange trio, running from diagonal corner
      to corner across the whole three-part
expanse, discloses

quiet personal message, or secret confession, from yours truly—
                                                            architect of the altar. Gold-
                    tinged mushrooms, below the Rastafarian’s
                                                                            witch-doctor list,
            reveal his own leaning to hallucinogens, his debt to mind
                                             expanders, a fraternal link
          to his sadly O-DEED model. The diagonal gold sweep runs
                                     through red-orange TIN car in mid-panel
                    upon the small gold crown, upper left, perhaps
                                   reserved for his humble aspiring self,
                                                                           a would-be Knight

following in his mentor’s art glory path. If that slanted chain
of faint gold figures belongs
          to Akyem’s own pnrvate history, unfolding
here in Barbados
today, a mystery triangle of red emblems near the work’s
                    center—like the Bermuda
Triangle at sea—may decode other puzzle parts. The red smear
under-named SCAR, its low point. High point,
          one large red crown, above-named KING PLEASURE.
          And the aforementioned five-petaled
red flower forms

isosceles midpoint. While SCAR gash marks out pains and wounds
                                                                    of Basquiat’s early dying,
                   flower and KROWN—taken together—radiate
                                                                                   hope of afterlife
              sainthood. Or Kingly Resurrection. Altar piece is moulded,
                                                         then, both as elegy
         tribute, and as maker Akyem’s sacerdotal shaping of his three-
                                                      paneled Miracle. He would offer up
                            his paint flesh as ransom, placed on the altar
                                       shelf of God’s hand—to insure second
                                                                                    life for Basquiat.

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