Street Art Pioneer Fab 5 Freddy Looks to Renaissance Art for Lessons About Race in His New BBC Film—and Rides a Horse While Doing It
Fab 5 Freddy opens up about his childhood, his love of museums, and his friendship with Basquiat for the BBC.
In the late 1970s and ‘80s, hip-hop and graffiti pioneer Fab 5 Freddy helped bring street art into the public consciousness. Then he helped bring it into art galleries. Now, the modern-day Renaissance Man is looking to the Renaissance itself to show how breaking down the strictures of the art world—especially when it comes to race—is a practice that goes back centuries. And, he’s doing it on a horse.
This Saturday, the street art legend will premier his newest film, A Fresh Guide To Florence with Fab 5 Freddy, on the BBC. The hour-long program finds Freddy, whose real name is Fred Brathwaite, riding around Italian cities on horseback, looking at 15th- and 16th-century Italian Renaissance art to show viewers that the fight for multicultural representation in art isn’t as new as it might seem.
“Giving the pioneers their dues,” says Freddy while explaining that many early depictions by Italian artists did not stereotype Africans.
“What was interesting was that before the African slave trade began, the concept of race didn’t really exist,” the Guardian reports him saying in the film. “The depictions of African people weren’t stereotyped. They were presented faithfully and they were just seen as part of life. Then you skip to the 1980s, when you think we would have come much further, and you have critics and gallerists calling Jean-Michel’s work ‘tribal.’ I remember thinking, ‘You’re an ignorant racist if you think he’s some wild man that they pulled off the streets and locked up in the basement and gave some paints to.’”
To make his point, Brathwaite looks to examples such as the depiction of a black boatman in Vittore Carpaccio’s Venetian market painting, Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge (1494), or the African king in Andrea Mantegna’s Scenes From the Life of Christ (1464). Elsewhere, he points to Giotto’s Trial by Fire, which shows Saint Francis walking through fire to prove Christianity’s existence to an African Sultan. And for those less familiar with art history, he also provides some helpful hip-hop analogues for Renaissance masters, calling Michelangelo “the Michael Jackson of the Renaissance,” and Machiavelli “Tupac’s guy.”
Brathwaite’s love of art history goes back to when he was a child, he explains in the film. Taking advantage of the Met’s flexible admission policy, he would spend entire days at the museum, living in “fantasy land.” Later, his well-documented friendship with Basquiat was formed over long visits to the Brooklyn Museum together.
“He would spend a lot of his childhood at the Brooklyn Museum just as I did at the Met,” Brathwaite says. “Finally, there was someone I could talk to about Caravaggio and Rothko. We were both so impressed with the radical nature of modernist manifestos like futurism. They gave us—two young black kids—the capacity to articulate what we wanted to say.”
A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy airs on BBC2 this Saturday, July 27.
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