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The new Basquiat Barbie is photographed in a generic looking Soho. (all images courtesy Mattel/Barbie, © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, NY)

She’s wearing a crown, donning images of colorful paintings that now cost millions of dollars, and she has her hair arranged in an X, who is she? Basquiat Barbie, of course.

The newest body dysmorphia-inducing plastic toy for children uses the work of renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to transform artistic practice into yet another trinket to buy. [The Barbie body type occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 adult women, though Ken, on the other hand, is more realistic at about 1 in 50 adult men.]

The back of the doll

What’s peculiar about this Barbie is that it resembles the socialites that frequent blue chip openings of Basquiat’s painting more than the artist himself. In product shots, the doll is set against a generic-looking “SoHo” backdrop, complete with colorful graffiti and cast-iron storefronts. This is Basquiat-collector-triumphant, not the artist.

Some of his most famous works appear on the doll’s suit: the hair is styled like the artist’s expressionist locks, and the crown is, of course, his ubiquitous symbol Basquiat’s image and work reduced to the most recognizable parts.

The release of this doll reminded me of J. Faith Almiron’s excellent essay on the 2019 Basquiat exhibition at the Brandt Foundation. Here’s the kicker:

Beyond the high volume and overwhelming demand, Basquiat exhibitions diversify the demography of its attendees. Unlike any other artist before or since, Basquiat invites everybody into the museum — art nerds, hip-hop heads, immigrant kids, post-colonial ex-pats, rebels young and old, everyday Black and Brown folk, thirsty celebrities, and indeed rich white people too. Basquiat hails you to revel in his glorious defiance, then take a piss on the walls of an oppressor.

The Basquiat Barbie is retailing for $50, and I have a feeling a lot of collectors’ kids will be getting one.

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

7 replies on “Barbie’s Back, as Basquiat?”

  1. They couldn’t find any female artists? Just another way to keep the value of those Basquiats up for the museums and collectors.

  2. Okay, but, at whom exactly are you directing your disgust here? Mattel? The collectors? The Basquiat estate green lit this project, handed over permission to use imagery. Since they are the gatekeepers, do you point the finger at them?

    1. It’s irony upon irony really. Basquiat himself had a very complex/ambiguous/confused relationship with the upper echelons of the art world/society which he both derided and yet sort entry to. His original street art was ephemeral and not commercial, until it was appropriated as ‘high art’. What seems to have been lost in all these moves is the protest element of his best work, But I think that happened long before Basquiat Barbie

  3. Just another example of how imagination get’s hijacked by commerce and people who like to think of themselves as an ‘influence’. The trouble is, it lacks innovation and is merely aping. It will lead to boredom, which a true artist like Basquiat would have moved on from and they can’t. ( Bansky is suffreing a similar phenomneon)

  4. So you’re saying suburban homemaker Barbie and G.I. Joes are better? Are we taking some of this b.s. a little too seriously? Many people, perhaps more today than in his lifetime, love Basquiat’s work. I used to appreciate commentary such as this, but nowadays it just comes across as self-congratulatory “woke” baloney. Talk about a First World problem?

  5. While I have a stable of moral high horses shod in ironies, I cannot improve on the discussion here. I do have a question: how weird is it to dress doll Basquiat in “Basquiat” fabric? Doubt that it’s Mattel’s conscious nod to the wax print fabrics marketed by colonists in Africa.

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