Jean-Michel Basquiat's groundbreaking art, now nearly 30 years old, has a renewed sense of "urgency," critics say, as the Art Gallery of Ontario prepares to open a show of the late New York artist's works.

The new exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time, which opens Saturday in the Toronto gallery, comes amid unrest over race relations in the U.S. — issues the African-American artist addressed in his pieces that ranged from graffiti art to paintings and sculptures.

"Now is the time to really think about how the individual has an opportunity to express oneself and to be heard, because so much of what we're grappling with is the voicelessness of the individual in a confused and confrontational society," said AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum.

"And I think that Basquiat raises these issues in a powerful way — he urges us to address them and gives voice to those who perhaps sometimes don't feel they have a voice."

Recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death by a policeman in August, were top of mind for many at a media preview of the exhibition on Tuesday.

Racism and police brutality "are topics that Basquiat dealt with both as a person and in some ways very directly in his art," said AGO chief curator Stephanie Smith, who grew up in St. Louis, close to Ferguson.

Died of drug overdose

The exhibition "reminds us of the power of art to help us deal with incredibly urgent issues, even when the inspiration for the conversation comes from works of art that were created 30 years ago," Smith said.

Basquiat died in 1988 of a drug overdose at age 27. His politically charged, street-influenced art earned him an international fanbase that included Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated.

"Basquiat actually brought Warhol back to his beginnings, that was hand painting," said guest curator Dieter Buchhart.

The exhibition features more than 80 large-scale paintings and drawings as well as multimedia stations, including audio of Charlie Parker's tune Now's the Time and of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

This is the first major exhibition of Basquiat's works in Canada and the AGO is the only North American stop for the show, which runs through May 10.

Toronto is the right place for the show because Basquiat's themes of identity, authority and the voice of the individual "are very much alive" in the cosmopolitan city, Teitelbaum said.

"[Toronto is] a great multicultural city where we're all trying to get along, and I think that his work gives us some pathways to that, really gives us a language to think about how to address how we can connect."