Jennifer Clement’s Memoir ‘Widow Basquiat’

‘I know no more perfect portrait of artist and muse’

Jean-Michel Basquiat with Suzanne Mallouk, 1981. Photograph: Duncan Fraser Buchanan

‘If you’d never hit me, I wouldn’t know my skeleton.’ Suzanne Mallouk knows that the other side of eros is pathos. Even before her father threw her down the stairs, she was bathing in it. Swimming, dripping in pathos. So is her sinewy, coke-addled lover, Jean-Michel. They’re two wounded souls moving through the gentrifying streets of downtown New York in the company of hobos and bohemians and hungry art dealers named Anina, Mary, Larry. Widow Basquiat (2000) is an irreverent animal, a hybrid text, at once a collage and an opera. A love story. It’s the most revealing glimpse of Jean-Michel Basquiat I know of – he, the product of Haitian and Puerto Rican parentage who all-too-briefly stalked this earth, crashing the white world of the white cube, only to be toasted with champagne like an over-performing circus animal.

An idiosyncratic collaboration between the poet Jennifer Clement and Mallouk, a Palestinian-Canadian ingenue and Basquiat’s first great love, Widow reads and feels like a prose poem. Rene Ricard, the flamboyant downtown flâneur who flits through this tale, plays both consigliere and Cassandra, for he bestows upon Suzanne the ‘widow’ sobriquet – this, long before her lover is long gone. It’s the widow, a sensitive runaway who keeps heroin tucked inside her beehive hair, who provides the material for Clement’s misfit text; a slim, staccato narrative about the lovers’ polychromatic adventures, accented by bits of oral history in Suzanne’s voice. She stares out from the cover of the US edition of the book – feline features, alabastrine skin and pouty lips – her arm wrapped around Jean-Michel, who wears an embroidered skullcap in the Muslim tradition (why?). We know from Suzanne that he liked to walk around naked. We know from Suzanne that he liked extravagant costumery, too – chic Armani suits to paint in and ersatz African garb for fancy openings. We also know he liked to fuck with white people’s racism. Especially through his art. Widow Basquiat’s action is vivid; you see and hear the thwack and clack of an angry fist, the snort of a hit, the sweet patter of Jean-Michel speaking Spanish (‘tu eres blanca como el arroz’), prank calls to a suicide hotline that verge on Beckettian, J.M. sprinkling water on the floors of the Museum of Modern Art like a voodoo priest, sprinkling fresh hundred dollars bills on the Bowery from the window of a limousine, too. Because this book is also about the wages of fame. Suzanne, her amour is fou, bears witness to it all. We sift through the wreckage of their not-quite-conjugal bed as we hurtle toward Jean-Michel’s impending demise. The surreal rise and fall of an American genius. We know how the story ends. I know no more perfect portrait of artist and muse. I know no more perfect love story. Because the other side of eros is pathos.

Negar Azimi is a writer and senior editor of Bidoun.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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