The Hole in the Wall: Curating Basquiat’s Defacement by Chaédria LaBouvier

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Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story was and remains a historic exhibition that in the current surge of the Black Lives Matter movement has a particular resonance.

As the first Black curator to curate an exhibition in the Guggenheim’s 80-year history, as well as the first Black woman, I was never not aware that the museum space is often unwelcoming to non-white people, and all people outside of the upper-middle class ranks.

My graduate background is in cinema, and very specifically screenwriting and costume design; I received my MFA in the former from UCLA and studied and researched under Deborah Landis as a part of my scholastic practice while at the film school. As such, one of the key elements of filmmaking was something that I sought to experiment with, or at least incorporate.

When the audience walked into the exhibition, the first thing that they saw was a facsimile of a hole in the wall, and Defacement on a separate wall, in a split-level fashion.

By splitting the exhibition space, I sought to challenge and complicate the idea of the standard three spatial categories – background, middle ground and foreground.

It’s not necessary for the audience to have a background in film theory, but there is already an intuitive relationship of it, whether they knew it or not. I felt it would be more beneficial to build on this, rather than re-orient the audience into a visual and spatial practice and theory.

If the aim of decolonising museums is a priority of an exhibition, then the decolonisation of gallery space must first be considered. In the future, I can imagine that I will write a treatise on this topic, but for now, I offer questions as answers and the beginnings of solutions.

Going into the making of the exhibition, I knew that many potential visitors felt unwelcomed at the Guggenheim; months prior, I received tweets or messages from people expressing how proud they were of me as the first Black curator, and also how unwelcome they had felt at the Guggenheim, if they had been at all.

I believe that the White Cube is not only out-dated, but is a product of curatorial era that though developed during the decline of empire, is very much an imperial product with its insistent upon stripping the four walls of socio-political context that is not inherent to the works. Of course, that is an essay in and of itself that will not be had here.  In my training and practice as a filmmaker (of sorts, my specialism is television), I chose to identify the techniques that speak to a wider audience in my visual and technical practice of anti-colonialism in creating and deconstructing space.

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Chaédria LaBouvier is an American curator and journalist. In 2019, LaBouvier became the first Black curator, the first Black woman and the first person of Cuban descent to curate an exhibition in the Guggenheim’s 80-year history, as well as the first Black author of a Guggenheim catalogue for the exhibition, “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story”.

Image – Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, at Guggenheim Museum, 2019, photographer Joe Bird/Alamy Stock Photo