Do You Basel? An Assessment of Black Fairs at Art Basel Miami
Angela N Carroll
In 2011, a small cadre of Black artists, gallery owners, collectors and community leaders from around the nation staged the first small fair of its kind in Miami, an exhibit of contemporary African American artists at the Purvis Young Gallery Museum. The next year in 2012, Black Art in America developed the brand, Do You Basel? as a call to action to continue the effort to bring more awareness about Black art to Miami. Do You Basel?, promoted Black fairs that happened concurrently with Art Basel Miami, a prominent and predominantly white annual fair in Miami Beach. Do You Basel?, posed critical inquiries to visitors about their commitment to travel beyond the main fair to support and experience works by and about the African diaspora; Will you venture to historic Overtown for Art Africa or to Little Haiti for the Griot Gallery and The Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance? Will you travel downtown to Prizm and PAMM to view some of the most exciting and timely works by Caribbean artists? Do you want to engage in dialogue with Black artists, galleries, and collectors about the state of Black art in and beyond Miami?
Now in its 17th year, Basel remains a predominantly white fair. More than 80,000 visitors attended Art Basel Miami. Collectors and art aficionados traveled from all over the world to view 4,000 artists exhibited at 270 galleries represented by 35 countries, on display for one week. As I traveled miles by car and by foot, standing in unrelenting traffic or in long lines at overcrowded openings to see artists who were not represented at the main fairs, I thought a lot about risk. Why do art markets consider it a risk to represent or sell artworks by non-white artists? Why are art fairs, museums or galleries that focalize Black artists or women perceived as being less significant than those that center white men?
In 2018, after Japanese entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa purchased a 1982 painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat for the historic sum of $110.5 million, and rapper-entrepreneur Sean Combs bought Kerry James Marshall’s 1997 painting, “Past Times” for 21.1 million, collectors and art markets alike presumed that valuation of Black works would continue to increase. Data procured that same year by Artnet revealed a more disturbing reality. Over the past ten years, African American artists at auction accounted for just 1.2 percent or roughly $2.2. billion in sales within the $180 billion global art market. Basquiat remains the highest-selling African American artist and he is joined by a cadre of five significant, but lower selling artists; Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, and David Hammons. What this suggests is that global demand for African and African American art is needed to shift market valuations about the worth of Black art.
That shift is happening slowly and progressively. This year, Senegal opened Musée des Civilisations noires (Museum of Black Civilizations) to revere the cultural heritage of continental Africa and to reclaim priceless artifacts and artworks that were stolen during the colonial era. In 2018, The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden relaunched as part of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, to spotlight African artists. That same year, The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) opened in Capetown, South Africa. Though domestic art institutions have been slow to embrace and appropriately appraise Black art, other art institutions that understand the historic importance and fiscal earning potential of work by artists of color continue to sprout up all over the world.
Basel considers itself to be an inclusive and diverse fair. Several of the blue-chip African American artists who were featured in the main fairs including Mickalene Thomas, Ebony G. Patterson, and David Hammons had great success at this year’s fair. Represented by Hauser & Wirth, Untitled (Silver Tapestry), 2008, a mixed media work by David Hammons reportedly sold for $2.4 million on opening day, and Hammons work African American Flag, 1990 at Mnuchin Gallery sold for $1.65 million. Azaleas, 1969 by Alma Thomas represented by Mnuchin Gallery, sold for $1.1 million, constituting some of the highest recorded sales at this year’s fair. If the main fairs are willing to exhibit and sell works by notable African and African American artists and also make space for emerging artists who are growing in prominence like Devan Shimoyama, Tschabalala Self and Theresa Chromati how can their metrics for inclusion also extend to smaller fairs and satellite locations who rely on sales from Miami Art Week to sustain themselves throughout the year? How can larger fairs be more intentional about directing foot traffic towards satellite locations and including more work by local artists in their exhibitions?
“[Black art] has largely been an excluded micro-market within the industry despite its affluence of art and art content”, noted curator and PRIZM Art Fair Founding Director, Mikhaile Solomon. “It is ironic that main fairs come to Miami from outside of Miami but rarely include galleries or artists from Miami in those spaces. As a mandate for us at least 20 – 25% of [PRIZM] are artists from Miami. Those artists represent some of the gems in the fair that many people are not familiar with.”
“There’s a long list of established Black-owned and centric art fairs that spend 2/3 of the year raising money to make the fairs occur.” Photographer and curator Carl Juste shared.
“Everything that happens that speaks to more diverse collections of Caribbean and Latin American culture is because satellite fairs took it upon themselves to show that work. It was our rebuttal. Yes, we work sometimes in the eleventh hour to prepare a show because we do not have the same money, sometimes we do, often we don’t. But now we are finding that there are more chances for our efforts to be recognized and rewarded. My source of storytelling is being brought to the table, but I am still hungry. I don’t want to own the table; I want to own the house.”
For Black art communities in Miami, Basel’s struggle to be more inclusive is rooted in a strained, long-standing devaluation of those communities, particularly those that are based outside of Miami Beach. Mention of Art of Black, an initiative to highlight Black artists and art movements in Miami’s heritage neighborhoods, was relegated to the last page of fair brochures or omitted entirely. The slight did little to assuage newcomer’s uncertainty about visiting Black-owned fairs or to encourage collectors to visit their exhibitions. Most of the artists included in the Art of Black fairs were not represented at the main fairs. The vast majority of exhibitions that highlighted works by Black contemporary artists occupied satellite venues on the periphery of the main fairs.
“There is a story here in Miami,” says Derin Young, consultant and former member of Rodeo Caldonia High Fidelity Performance Theatre, a Black feminist performance collective featured in the exhibition, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985. “This is where Dr. Martin Luther King debuted his “I Have a Dream” speech. This is where Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. We wanted to bring people together. It’s a family thing. We always wanted to do a proper Black art fair, [so], we launched in 2012. Now they are popping up. But we traveled around town at that time to get people to consider the importance of black presence at Basel and to support it. Where it goes from here is all about integrity and what your ultimate goal is in presenting the work.”
Many of the Black-owned and operated fairs and galleries pride themselves on creating spaces that value community more than capital. The question of how to sustain those spaces for present and future communities is an unrelenting concern.
“It’s a slow process but we are determined to change the perception of the wider community, in particular, our community, that we don’t deserve art, art galleries, wonderful restaurants– you deserve the best.” says Neil Hail, architect and founder of Art Africa, “It is very difficult when you have been denied things for so long, have been beaten down for so long, you just accept that as your lot. It is not. We are a group of people who are filled with creativity. We have a rhythm that is ours. Once we gain the confidence that we can do this, then the world will see what we can do. That is what our journey is about, no matter how many people say it would be better to leave, no, we are going to stay here [in Overtown]. The only barometer that we have is excellence. We feel that excellence trumps race every time and we need to keep on that, and on producing excellent work.”
“I grew up in a time when Black was not so beautiful. You call someone “Black” and you better be prepared to fight, it was considered an insult.” Dr. Mike Butler, Director of the Griots Gallery in the Center for Haitian Studies shared. “The historical moment that we are living in politically, we have come in and out of fashion. We are building and have built frameworks that little by little raise interest and prominence in Black art. We are in a fortunate time that younger artists and emerging artists have a way of looking at the world that differs from the people who came before them, and they are looking at these ideas in the visual sphere that is quite interesting to themselves and to the public at large. That is a reflection of the cyclical nature of art-making and art presentation.”
Basel is overwhelming in the best ways possible, not only because of the sheer number of exhibited artworks but also because of the culture of Basel, which at times, feels more about the scene, the spectacle and party life that surrounds Basel than it is about the art. I heard the rallying cry of Do You Basel?, and oriented my tour towards the geniuses who stood at the margins; the periphery locations that centered and celebrated artists and artworks from the African diaspora. The efforts of Do You Basel?, Art of Black and other initiatives to elevate global consciousness about the significance and viability of Black art markets are important not only for the disinvested communities in Miami, that are both Black and Brown but also for the broader art markets, who may continue to erroneously equate Black art markets with risk, even as global projections prove otherwise. When Black and African contemporary artworks and Black-owned distributors and fairs are seen as a valuable staple rather than a marketable trend, we will see longstanding systemic change at domestic and international art fairs and art institutions. Until then, the rhetoric of equity and inclusion promoted by those institutions and art fairs will continue to be a surface gesture that does little to grapple with or resolve long-standing inequities.
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Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of art history and culture in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. Angela contributes contemporary art, performance and film criticism for BmoreArt Magazine, Arts.Black, Sugarcane Magazine, and Umber Magazine. She received her MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and currently teaches within the Film and Moving Image program at Stevenson University in Baltimore Maryland. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.
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