Jean-Michel Basquiat, the neo-expressionist artist, created Irony of Negro Policeman in 1981.
The painting that measures 122 cm by 183 cm is an oil on canvas creation that features acrylics and crayon. At present the painting belongs in a private collection and is not being exhibited.
Jean-Michel Basquiat began his artistic career in Lower Manhattan, with graffiti art work that was splashed onto the local buildings. At the time he used the tag of SAMO. It was during his time working at Unique Clothing Warehouse, that his love of expressing his artistic side was discovered by Harvey Russack, founder of Unique Clothing. His career took off in 1978 when an article was published about his talent for graffiti in the publication, The Village Voice.
Irony of Negro Policeman is a mixture of graffiti, expressionism and pure art. As an African American growing up in New York, Basquiat vehemently believed that African Americans were subjected to the dominance and control of a white male oppressive policing system. At the very core of this painting is the statement that Basquiat envisaged the role of a negro policeman as that of working to enslave his fellow African American citizens. Irony of a Negro Policeman, asks the question: Why should an African American work for a police state that works against them? The painting is a direct artistic statement towards the white male dominated establishment. At the same time, Basquiat is also critiquing his own race. The cartoon like and almost harsh looking policeman has been made to represent the foolishness of any African American who wishes to become a law enforcement officer. Basquiat truly believed that they would only be enslaving themselves, while working for a white supremacy police group.
What we observe when we look at Irony of Negro Policeman, is a large dominant male figure that almost appears as a large black mass on the canvas. At first glance the policeman looks almost carton like and childlike in its depiction of an adult figure. For instance, one leg is wider than the other and the body symmetry is unnatural. There are also line childlike scribbles on the painting. The face of the policeman is also that of mask, a caricature, not a face that has been painted from a natural point of view. This black policeman has been painted as a bold statement against the authorities, it mocks them but not the policeman in question. The mask and line drawing of the policeman's hat, also help to create the image of a cage. This cage imprisons the policeman, he is an authority figure, but the irony is that he has little authority as he is working to a white agenda against his fellow African Americans. What is also interesting about the cafe like hat, is that it is not entirely black, but is splattered with colour. This helps to add a clown like quality to the image, that the policeman is merely acting out his role.
Although the painting is dominated mainly by the large and imposing policeman, there is also text to the right of the canvas, that states clearly: Irony of Negro Policeman. Basquiat has therefore made his artistic intentions very clear and with no misinterpretation. The word, Pawn has also been written on the the bottom of the canvas, also on the right side. This again makes Basquiat's intentions very clear. He obviously views the Negro Policeman as a pawn, a puppet, who is being manipulated and used by his fellow white policeman. We must also consider why Basquiat chose the word Pawn as many art critics have raised the issue that thus has connotations to the animal world. They believe that Basquiat was making the statement that the white police state at the time viewed African American policeman as nothing more than animals, and as a disposable commodity.
Irony of Negro Policeman is very much an artistic clique of his fellow race. This hypocrisy of the policing system within America is shown visibly through the use of the mask like face of the policeman. He is being controlled by the white superior police officers who are actually in control. The Negro Policeman from Basquiat's point of view is merely a token gesture, a tick box exercise to fulfil a quota. What is also interesting is the use of black and white within the image. The large and imposing poilceman has been painted almost as a large black mass on the canvas. He should be the imposing authority figure. But Basquiat has painted him against a pure white background. Our eyes are drawn to this purity, and the symbolism that this represents, as the dominance of the white western world.
Irony of Negro Policeman, is very much an artistic social commentary about the social isolation and repression of African Americans in a white dominated society.