Artistic response to OMA Basquiat scandal: Surprise art

ByMary E. Alvarez

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The Loch Haven Cultural Park neighborhood has a new — and unexpected — art installation: An artistic commentary on the unfolding Basquiat scandal at Orlando Museum of Art.

Staff at the Renaissance Theatre, just a stone’s throw from the museum, discovered at the start of the month that unbeknown to them an artist had made a statement about the museum’s FBI-raided “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit on the side of their warehouse-like building.

No one noticed anything amiss when entering the building one morning, said artistic director Donald Rupe, but texts began lighting up the staff’s phones later that evening.

“I was getting messages saying, ‘Congratulations, we love it,’” Rupe said, “but I had to go out and see for myself. I had no idea it was there”

The large-scale art depicts former museum director Aaron De Groft asking Basquiat expert Jordana Moore Saggese to authenticate a crudely drawn artwork topped by Basquiat’s iconic crown symbol. She responds with a breezy “Sure!” — in which the capital S has been replaced by a dollar sign.

De Groft championed the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit, which purported to display 25 works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the superstar contemporary artist who died in 1988. But questions quickly arose about the art’s authenticity, and it was later discovered the FBI had been investigating the works for years — with sworn statements that disputed the owners’ story of how the art was discovered.

Although it had been served with an FBI subpoena last summer, the museum opened the exhibition in February. Five months later, the FBI raided the museum and seized the art; De Groft was terminated, according to museum sources.

A clue to the surprise art installation’s source was found on single-named Orlando artist Halsi’s @withdralsi account on Instagram, where a photo of the installation appeared.

Halsi, whose signature ambiguous “Everyone” figure can be seen around Orlando, confirmed that he created the art as a response to the blot the scandal has made on Orlando’s art scene.

“It’s more news coverage for Orlando that’s negative to the city’s validity in the upper echelon of the art world,” he said. “I was disappointed.”

Halsi, a 24-year-old Central Florida native has been creating art since he was a preteen, like Basquiat getting his start in street art. He visited the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition — and was unimpressed.

“I thought it was either Basquiat’s worst work he ever made or it’s all fake,” he said.

Saggese, a University of Maryland professor hired to give an opinion on the works’ authenticity, said in a statement this week that she informed the owners she believed nine of the works were not in fact by Basquiat, information that was omitted from the museum-published exhibition catalog.

Saggese issued the statement, she said, because coverage of the scandal was causing her “reputational damage and emotional distress.”

Halsi said the idea to depict her and De Groft in his art came in solidarity with Basquiat because he felt the artist had been treated unfairly — and isn’t alive to defend himself.

“The way I looked at it was, if I were a dead artist and this happened to me, it would be really disrespectful,” he said. “I would want another artist to do this for me.”

He and an artist colleague, who goes by the handle @havetelo, worked on the idea. Halsi printed the art at a Fed Ex store — the irony not lost on him that suspicions about the “Heroes & Monsters” art were raised because of an incongruous Fed Ex label on one of the works.

Then he pasted the prints on the side of the building, not realizing it was a theater. He picked the spot, using Google Earth maps, because he wanted somewhere near the museum “and it looked like a good wall,” he said.

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The work also reflects the direction in which his artistry is moving.

“I really want to start making more art with a direct purpose,” Halsi said. “More stuff like this that specifically impacts things I care about.”

He may have picked just the right spot to make his statement.

Rupe said no one has contacted the theater to complain about the installation. Coincidentally, the Ren, as the theater is known, is awaiting permission from the city to create a permanent mural on the wall, he said, so at some point Halsi’s artwork will be removed.

But, Rupe said, the theater isn’t in any hurry to take it down because its artistry matches “The Ren’s vibe” of empowering artists.

“We aren’t anti-OMA, we’re anti-what-happened-at-OMA,” Rupe said. “And a young artist using our building to express his voice … that’s why we created the Ren.”

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, or email me at [email protected]. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to For more fun things, follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


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