Last spring, Urban Decay launched a collection in collaboration with the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a line that included makeup inspired by Basquiat, a prominent figure in the ‘80s pop art movement.
A protégé of Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s art held all the elements of pop art that had wooed me as a kid, but now there was more substance. It wasn’t just commentary on the new wave of plastic mass production — it was a spliced-infinite reel of Basquiat’s experiences as an artist. He was an artist that showed me the complexities of life, but he used a series of one-dimensional canvases to tell his narrative.
About a month earlier, when I found out about the line, I was on the Urban Decay website within seconds. My mind was spinning as I was thinking about all the colors they could have put in the palettes. Maybe there would be a canary yellow one, like the overpowering background of “Hollywood Africans.” Maybe a shade of black named SAMO, after his graffiti-era pseudonym. Maybe the dismal bone white and burgundy from his later work, “Riding with Death.” I had been bored of neutrals for a while — most mainstream companies had fallen into this routine of taupes, creams and the occasional sassy shimmer, but nothing too groundbreaking. Typical me — with money put aside to blow on my habit for makeup — was ready for April.
I had high hopes for this collaboration. I had envisioned myself in all the tones Basquiat used to make his work — I saw my future makeup looks as something artistic, something that reminded me of one of my favorite artists.
When I had finally got a look at the color palettes Urban Decay had chosen, I honestly wasn’t wooed. They were the same brights and jewel tones I had seen the company piece together time and time before. The names were vague things like “Neo” or “Crown” — names an observer could take from looking at the packaging, not something that was drawn from the complex history that an artist laced into his work.
My distaste for the line grew even more when I saw who the face of the campaign was: Ruby Rose. Basquiat, a prominent black artist who created works about being black in America, who critiqued the American mainstream for being so Eurocentric — is now being represented by a caucasian woman.
That whole thing is ironic because “the way (Basquiat’s work) spoke out against social injustice” was one of the reasons the company said it was so eager to collaborate with the Basquiat estate. Yet, other than the images stamped on the packaging, there were no strides made by the company for any social movement. Urban Decay had fallen into the pit of the many corporations that rode social justice movements for profit.
In my fury, I spent an hour on the phone with my childhood friend Julienne, an art history major and fellow makeup enthusiast, venting about how many opportunities this collection missed — and how hesitant I was to buy from Urban Decay again.
It was upsetting because Urban Decay was a makeup brand that I had been in love with since my early years of high school — it was one of the brands which taught me that makeup was a form of art and expression. When I couldn’t create art, or when I was feeling uninspired, I was still able to wake up in the morning and pull out a sharp cat eye.
When I looked in the mirror the next morning, deciding on what color combos would make for today’s fire look, I stopped for a second. Why was it did I pick the deepest red eyeshadow or the darkest purple lipstick? Why was I looking to present myself as so different and distinct? Makeup was so temporary. For so long I had justified covering myself in all these colors — labeling these looks as “artistic expression” — when in reality I think I was hiding.
There was this subconscious thought that maybe this Basquiat-themed packaging and these “specially-picked shades” would be the mirror in which I saw the artist I wanted people to see me as.
When I approach makeup now, I realize I have to be more critical. Makeup isn’t just pigments and powders, it’s a tool that I have been using to manipulate how I’m perceived. If I’m going to pay respects to any one of my favorite artists, I have to learn from the lessons they’ve taught me in their own art.
I was entitled to be so critical of Urban Decay when I was doing exactly what they had been — I was exploiting Basquiat’s art to create an image.
Every form of expression — whether it’s writing, art or makeup — is a reflection of who I am. If I want to be authentic to myself, I have to be authentic in the representation of myself — and I was a fool to think I could ever find it in a $40 eyeshadow palette.
Annalise Kamegawa writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on a life of shifting artistic identities. Contact her at [email protected].