On Wednesday Urban Decay, the makeup brand behind an eyeshadow palette so popular that one is sold every five seconds, announced a "SERIOUSLY limited-edition collection." Urban Decay x Jean-Michel Basquiat would probably have sold itself even without the next-level packaging or the clever "art is makeup, makeup is art" pitch. Or without Ruby Rose as the face of the makeup brand's campaign for its collaboration with the late NYC art legend.
Using his work to sell makeup would probably also have met with a bit of skepticism, considering Basquiat's work often tackled 80s America's odious commercial consumption habits. But casting a white model as the face of the collection is drawing particular backlash, considering one of the "commodities" Basquiat saw as pre-packaged for mainstream consumerism was blackness. His iconic, subversive works frequently satirised the limited western mainstream representation of black people that unfortunately — and here rather ironically — still exists today.
how do u think basquiat would really feel about the urban decay collab? especially since ruby rose is the face of it and not a black artist
— ™ (@tristan_jpg) March 17, 2017
If you know Basquiat's work and what he stood for - having his art splayed on a makeup line for corporate profit is awfully out of touch
— Astrology by Mecca (@TheMeccanism) March 15, 2017
.@RubyRose as a Basquiat fan you should know that his work was a response to the lack of black bodies in the western canon.
— mulan in milan (@holy_wuu) March 16, 2017
Critics have also taken issue with the collaboration given the circumstances of Basquiat's death: 27, depressed, after a heroin overdose at his studio on Great Jones Street. In 2015, a burger joint around the corner from the studio started selling a $64 Basquiat Prime Beef Burger inspired by the late detractor of grotesque consumerism.
Granted Basquiat is not the first deceased artist to have his image packaged and sold for profit. The Radiant Child's friend and collaborator Andy Warhol, who also manipulated consumerism in his colorful silkscreens, appeared on makeup for NARS in 2012. The late photographer Norman Parkinson posthumously linked up with Charlotte Tilbury in 2015. Keith Haring has had his political cartoons appear on everything from my brother's childhood curtains to a $149 Clarisonic Mia 2 skin cleanser. After years of petitioning Mac on Change.org, superfans of Selena Quintanilla were given a makeup collection inspired by the late Queen of Tejano music — and modelled by her too. Aaliyah fanatics are now begging the brand for lipsticks and eye palettes based on their own queen.
Basquiat's work, however, seems particularly prone to appearing on consumer goods. While the burger was probably/hopefully not officially licensed, his work has also been featured on Reebok sneakers, Skateroom skateboards, and Alice + Olivia's resort 17 collection. Varying percentages from the profits of these products have gone to initiatives in support of empowering creative children and young designers. The Urban Decay collaboration only appears to financially benefit Urban Decay.
David Stark, president of Artestar, the creative firm that has managed the licensing of Basquiat's work for nearly 20 years, spoke to New York magazine about the firm's decision to approach Urban Decay. "Someone like Jean-Michel has been deceased for a long time and it's important for us to keep his profile high and find good, relevant ways of bringing him into the cultural landscape," he said. "Urban Decay is a company we've known for several years. It took us a little bit of time to craft the program we eventually developed with them, but we did feel that as a brand Urban Decay is edgy and had an element of artistry and felt like a good fit."
Stark's defense of a white woman appearing as the face of Basquiat's work is more questionable. "Even though he grew up in a middle-class black family, his family was Caribbean," he said. "They didn't have the African-American experience. His heritage was Haitian and Puerto Rican." Stark was not pressed on the comparability of Basquiat's graffiti tag "SAMO" to the racial slur "sambo," nor the fact that his family's exact origins weren't immediately obvious to people passing him on the street.
Interestingly, this isn't the first time that Ruby Rose has faced backlash over Basquiat's art. The heavily inked actress is an undoubted Basquiat superfan. She has the late artist's portrait and sketches tattooed on her arm and his iconic crown sketch on her rib cage. Taking to Twitter in 2013 in response to fans who called the latter ugly, she wrote, "So many people don't know Basquiat? You should watch one of the documentaries or read up [on this] beautiful soul, lost too young. My favorite Artist." Hopefully this controversy encourages those unfamiliar with the artist to discover the less comfortable yet still relevant parts of his legacy.
Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Instagram