Réka M. Cristian, Associate Professor, Chair of the American Studies Department, University of Szeged, and co-director of the Inter-American Research Center at the Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, is the author of Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Essays on Literature, Film, and American Studies (2012) and Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories (co-authored with Zoltán Dragon in 2008). She is founding co-editor of AMERICANA: E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary and its AMERICANA eBooks division.
This essay discusses the visual shift of race and gender representation in a selection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. The Brooklyn graffiti artist, who was known for elevating the street energy of vernacular inscriptions into high art, reinterpreted Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) in Three-Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant (1982) by erasing racial difference and challenging gender stereotypes in a work devoid of gender markers. In Untitled (Maid from Olympia) (1982), another version of the modernist painting, Basquiat places the figure of the black servant, formerly a colonized subject, in the center of the work; as a result, the servant “talks back” in a visual narrative functioning as a critique of colonization. Both paintings thus recast and reinterpret Manet’s Olympia and her world in a contemporary signification of race and gender by emphasis, or lack thereof, of such markers. (RMC)