Converse x Basquiat: Ethics of "Translation"
Converse founded in 1908, over its century-long career has done quite a lot for the American culture aside from blessing us with the iconic Chuck Taylor All Star. Converse made footwear for the military during the World War II, was also a major athletic shoe producer, and has collaborated with the likes of Pink Floyd, DC Comics, Metallica, Miley Cyrus, the list goes on. Just now, Converse released its collection with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Over three decades after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat is right now the highest sold artist of America with his Untitled, sometimes called Skull, selling for over $110 Million, but numbers are hardly a measure for his cultural significance. He was a cultural icon in the 80s and the popularization of graffiti as an artform and not simply 'doodling' can largely be attributed to him. His artworks were politically charged, imitating the life around him as 'Defacement' expanded on police brutality, 'Irony of a Negro Policeman' attacked the idea of enslavement of African-American people.
He used a three-pointed crown to honor his heroes but, in the tradition, with which he was well-versed, it stood for authority, autonomy and sainthood. This double-edged symbol, sometimes called Basquiat Crown, was the artist's signature motif. It is the intersection point of current political realities of USA and of the history of art.
Converse's collection features the symbol abundantly and the sneakers have a Basquiat-esque look but there are still some concerns, first let's have a look at the collection.
The collection has some of the most popular of Converse’s staples and it features some of the famous works of Basquiat: Kings of Egypt III translated on a Chuck 70, Kings of Egypt II on a Skidgrip and Pez-Dispenser on a Chuck Taylor All Star. All of these are made in different styles, keep scrolling to get up-close and personal with them.
This premium high-top sneaker retells Kings of Egypt III on a Chuck 70 high top shoe using digital print and embroidery on lateral sides. It features the aforementioned crown motif and the over all look of the sneaker, especially the abstract face, has that Basquiat vibe of a dominant solitary figure on a blank canvas.
This is the converse classic Skidgrip with sublimation print of Kings of Egypt II. It is more crowded than the Chuck 70 and captures the graffiti vibes perfectly. The cryptic text paired with the artist’s signature colours and iconography creates a “vibrant visual language that’s influenced by Egyptian history but firmly rooted in street culture.”
This one brings together one of the most iconic of Basquiat’s works with the all-famous Chuck Taylor All Star. It has a stitched down ankle patch with the print of Pez Dispenser. This artwork has a crowned dinosaur slapped on a plain background, this contrast is perfectly captured by the patch on an otherwise plain sneaker.
Converse is also offering Basquiat-themed customizations for the Chuck Taylor All Star, including the crown motif, abstract text and colors. Want more of Basquiat? Converse has some T-Shirts in the cards too.
The collection, Converse says, is a translation of some of Basquiat's work on the canvas of their sneakers...
But what got lost in translation?
Basquiat has always been a favorite of popular culture with his work recently featured on Tiffany’s collection as well. Capitalizing on an artist’s popularity is, of course, a matter of some concern since the work can gradually become detached from its context, like Beethoven’s Für Elise is more of an elevator music now.
When the context of an artwork is as politically relevant as that of Basquiat's, we must be sure that its value is not diluted. Sometimes reproducing the aesthetics of a work is not enough, its politics must be retold too.
Otherwise, it works in a way akin to how AOC's "Tax the Rich" dress dilutes the message and renders it rather superficial. Then again, Basquiat himself brought pop art and high art together, so perhaps he would have approved of this, besides the sneakers are pretty fucking cool. In future it would be great to see some of Basquiat's more politically charged works like Defacement or Irony of a Negro Policeman in pop culture.
The Converse x Basquiat collection released on 16 September 2021 and is available at Converse's website.