Directed by Cyril Bérard, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Africa at the Heart charts the impact and influence of the titular American artist on the continent of Africa, which he visited for the only time in 1986. The documentary uses as its launching-off point Basquiat’s ten-day trip to the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan and the first exhibition of his art in Africa. The visit inspired Basquiat’s work, and his art left an imprint on the continent’s artists that remains to this day.
Filmmaker Bérard initially set out to make a documentary about the African influences that found their way into Brooklyn-based Basquiat’s work after his trip, but he ultimately decided to pivot the film’s point of view inward on the continent. “I focused on the African continent and tried to understand how African artists and the African public received and still receive his work,” explains Bérard. “Once I made the decision to make a movie about this, my starting point was his one and only trip to Africa in 1986.”
A natural bookend to the documentary was the second exhibition of Basquiat’s work in Africa, which took place two decades later in 2007, several years after the Neo-Expressionist artist’s death at age 27 from a drug overdose. The show was put on by the Zinsou Foundation in Benin.
“These were the only two exhibitions of Basquiat in the African continent,” explains Bérard. “I decided to take these two dates, these two reference points, as the beginning and the end of the film and to try to understand what was between these two reference points. Doing this, I started to look for African artists who were influenced by Basquiat’s work,” including Jacobleu, Dominique Zinkpè and Aboudia, who are all featured in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Africa at the Heart.
With his latest documentary, Bérard hopes to impart to viewers the ways in which Basquiat paved the way for African artists in the 1990s, 2000s and today. “He was the first one to make it possible for Black artists to be famous around the world,” says Bérard. “Now they are. Twenty years later, they are. He’s the first one who made it possible.”
“Basquiat was ahead of his time,” he adds. “He opened the door, and now African artists are finally recognized on an international level. They are present in Occidental, Western mediums. They are present in the markets. They are really talented, not just as traditional artists, but as modern, contemporary artists. And that’s a great thing.”
Arts and culture stories like the one Bérard tells in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Africa at the Heart are coming to audiences in the U.S. via the recently launched TV5MONDEplus. “We want to bring to the American audience unique films, something they can probably not find on the mainstream American platforms,” says Patrice Courtaban, TV5MONDE’s executive VP of global growth and development and CEO of TV5 USA. “Platforms like TV5MONDEplus can play a big part in bringing very high-quality content to the American audience with a unique perspective on topics like art.”
“More targeted services, premium services like TV5MONDE, differentiate themselves in bringing unique content to the U.S.,” adds Courtaban. “We’re working with talented directors and producers like Cyril. We can work as a partnership and really bring these partnerships alive. We look to do more of that with TV5MONDEplus.”
For filmmakers like Bérard, seeing a project reach its final mile, from completion to being presented to an audience, requires having the right entity behind its distribution. “We as directors, our job is to make films,” says Bérard. “We are working before the film, during the film, editing. Then, we absolutely really need talented distributors. The condition to make the film living. I finished this film in December and its life is starting now.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Africa at the Heart premiered on TV5MONDE USA’s streaming service TV5MONDEplus on August 1.