Basquiat’s Irony of Negro Policeman is a conscious and sharp critique of how African-Americans are controlled by the white majority in America. He wonders how an African-American could be a policeman, working to enforce rules that were meant to enslave themselves.
The figure in the painting is a totalitarian black mass – a policeman outlined in white with a mask-like head symbolizing hypocrisy. He wears a colorful cage-like hat which frames his diminished head. It represents, as Basquiat had said, “how constrained the independent perceptions of African-Americans were at the time.”
Although the colours do work together, they are assembled as if to be fighting for the dominant position in the painting. Instead of working together they work against each other, trying to one up each other, creating tension. Basquiat’s wordplay on the side lists “Irony” at the top of the figure’s head in seemingly a cloud, below the brim at eye line “Irony of Negro Policeman,” and to the bottom by his left foot “Pawn” and “Left.”
Basquiat’s career encapsulated the kind of intensity and drama that art legends are made of. Within a period of five years he went from being a high school drop-out living on the streets of New York, to an established painter whose work was in high demand. Shortly thereafter, he died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven, ending his short, but prolific career.