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Fade To Black: On The State Of Artists Of Color At Art Basel

Kehinde Wiley, Hank Willis Thomas, Renee Cox and more speak on the state of artists of color at Art Basel.

Photos by Asha Efia


We went down to Miami over the weekend to join our friends from Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), Donnamarie Baptiste and Dejha Carrington in celebrating artists of color during Art Basel. Taking place Saturday at the Miami Art Space in Wynwood, the third edition of Fade To Black consisted of an all-day exhibition curated by Tim Davis and featured the work of Tamara Natalie Madden, Ulysses Marshall, Amaryllis Dejesus Moleski and Michael Platt, a panel on arts activism with Dream Defenders organizer Umi Selah, New York-based artist and organizer YK Hong, visual artist and Stop Telling Women To Smile creator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and defense attorney Kenneth J. Montgomery moderated by MoCADA’s Executive Director James Bartlett, and a party DJ’d by our friend and Everyday People founder DJ Moma.

The Fade To Black party brought out everyone from Miami Heat players Chris Bosh and Luol Deng to legendary Brooklyn street dancer Storyboard P and art stars like Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, Renee Cox and Hank Willis Thomas.

We asked attendees some questions:

Renee Cox creative directed her own portrait.

Renee Cox

Visual artist

Born in Jamaica / Currently in New York

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and in the greater art world in general?

Since I started out in '93, I definitely have to say yes. I wish a little bit more of it would come in my direction in terms of finances [laughs].

What do you think could happen to enhance what's going on, especially for women of color?

I think women of color right now, within the art world, we've got some solid positions. You've got Wangechi (Mutu). You've got Mickey (Michaeline Thomas). You have myself and a whole bunch of other young ones that are coming up that are doing some really interesting things. There's Ebony Patterson out of Jamaica as well. I think it's a pretty exciting time overall.

As artists of color are getting more recognition in the predominantly white Western art world, what does it mean for artists of Jamaican descent, or artists from Africa?

I think it's opening up more because the art world is a business. It's a stock market. I think as certain people's stock go up within wherever they're from, whether they're Egyptian or Kenyan or American, Jamaican, I think that helps the overall program in a lot of ways so that people start to begin to look, and maybe they're looking just from a financial betting point of view, but that's okay because the people have money to work and they can go do more. This is beneficial.

Hank Willis Thomas

Conceptual artist

Based in New York City

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and also in the greater art world?

There's more of us getting exposure in a more integrated art world. There's always been a huge and very supportive art world for artists of color, especially African-American artists. Now, they're having more of a conversation with artists from Asia, from Europe, and from different ethnicities in the United States, and also, having more support from a range of collectors and gallerists with different backgrounds.

What advice would you give to young artists of color right now?

Don't be young artists of color. The world will try to limit you enough as it is. Just be the best person you can be and hopefully, your work can be a manifestation of that.

Tamara Natalie Madden

Visual artist (International Visions Gallery)

Born in Jamaica / Based in Atlanta

Have you noticed any changes in Caribbean American art in the United States?

The thing is when you're a Caribbean artist and you live here in America, you're classified as an African-American artist. It's up to you as an individual to go back and bring the information back to where you're from. The opportunities are there if your work is strong, if you make the right connections for artists of color, but it's up to you as an individual Caribbean artist to take the information back to wherever you come from and help artists who are from your original country to get their work shown here.

What's the connection with your art and the politics of today?

My artwork is about the everyday person. I focus on heightening the people who are generally overlooked. A lot of people I paint, I find them at grocery stores and what not.

What inspires you to paint?

I have a rare genetic disease called IGA nephropathy and I had a kidney transplant in 2001 from my brother who I didn’t know. I actually went to Jamaica on a whim and he offered his kidney to me and he was a perfect match. I got the transplant in 2001 and that's why I started to paint. That's why I put birds in my painting because I was on dialysis and now the birds represent freedom from illness. I paint because I have to and so I paint in memory of the other people that I live with in Jamaica, the everyday hardworking people. For me, it's about heightening these people and giving them the opportunity to shine. My work, I'm very connected to it—very, very connected to it—so it’s very personal.

Wangechi Mutu

Visual artist, Founder of Africa's Out

Born in Nairobi, Kenya / Based in Brooklyn, New York

What's the best thing you saw in Miami during Art Basel this year?

The standout experience for me was Narcissister who performed "Little Red Riding Hood." She's one of the most provocative, disturbing, intriguing and skilled performers.

Luol Deng

Miami Heat small forward

Born in South Sudan / Currently in Miami

Who are some artists you've been following?

Emmanuel Jambo, a South Sudanese photographer whose work I had on display at South Sudan Unite [in DC]. As well as Yonas G. Shiferaw, an Ethiopian artist on the rise.

MeLo-X

Musician and visual artist

Based in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York

What's the connection with your art and today’s politics?

In my music, which is an extension of my art, I usually talk about a lot of stuff that goes on in the community, which nowadays is everywhere with police brutality and different things like that. Where I live, a lot of things happen in a close vicinity to each other. A lot of that usually influences my music.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Visual artist and creator of Stop Telling Women to Smile

Born in Oklahoma City / Based in Brooklyn, New York

What's the connection between your art and today’s politics?

A lot of the work that I do is based around women and gender. Specifically, the way that we are treated. I'm interested in hearing the experiences that women have from various backgrounds. How does where you live, what your race is, what your gender or sexuality is, affect how you are experiencing the world and how people treat you? Sexual assault, sexual violence, street harassment, being black and being a woman, racism and sexism, police brutality; it all fits together.

Do you think the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel?

Last year, I came as a spectator just to see what it was all about. It felt really isolated. I felt like it was very wealthy and very white and very old, and I didn't really get this urban streets kind of urgency when it came to art and people of color within the art world. This year, I am getting that experience, maybe because I’m a part of events like Fade To Black and I am just around other artists of color who are doing really cool things. I think it's something you have to search for. Just like in the rest of the world, you have to look for it. It's not part of this mainstream visibility. It's the same thing here at Basel.

What should the art world's new year's resolution be?

To be more inclusive, but not in a patronizing way. Be more inclusive of people creating really great art who are young, who are poorer—people who are not men, who are not white, who are not old and who are also doing really cool things. Search for those folks and present them on a high platform.

Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze

Visual artist

Born in Nigeria / Based in Brooklyn, New York

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and for African artists as well?

I do think it's changing. I think that that change can happen faster and in more quantity, but I do think that with fairs like Prizm and then MoCADA's presence and their involvement with having this exhibition and this party, the presence of people of African descent is here and I can hope that that will only increase in the future.

James Bartlett

Executive Director of MoCADA

Based in Brooklyn

Do you feel the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and in the greater landscape of the art world?

Yeah. I think the landscape is changing slowly but surely. I think that spaces like this are still very, very needed. Art Basel is on the surface an international fair, however, it's still extremely Eurocentric, but yes, slowly but surely, there's names like Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu who get a lot of recognition, but there's still not a lot of spaces for emerging artists of color.

As the landscape does slowly change, what does it mean for African artists?

For African artists, it can be a potentially amazing platform. This is really a nexus of the art world, particularly the gallery and the art sales world. If you're going to be a professional artist, you have to be here in a sense. I think that galleries are starting to recognize. There are a couple South African galleries at Art Basel this year, Stevenson Gallery and Goodman Gallery. It's starting to open up.

Allison Davis (left) with Ali Rosa-Salas, Exhibitions Coordinator at MoCADA.

Allison Davis

Associate Artistic Director of MoCADA

Based in Brooklyn, New York

What is the mission of MoCADA?

The basic idea is building community through art. We're a community-based organization and so we believe in the power of art to move, to organize, to express, to honor members of the African diaspora, whether they're in Brooklyn or internationally.

Do you feel the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and in the greater world?

This is my first Basel so I can’t compare it to previous years, but there is definitely an energy in the air and a force that’s happening with events like Fade To Black. I was at Jack Shainman’s party last night and there was a solid presence of African-American and African diasporan arts. People are really coming into their power and being recognized and holding spaces for themselves. I think that African-Americans and members of the diaspora are not waiting to be recognized and not waiting to be valued, but really doing it themselves.

Does the art world’s greater attention to Black American art have repercussions for African art?

I think that there is a propensity to put black art and African art in the same bowl and they're not the same. African art is not the same. It's a continent of 54 countries so I hope that people are cognizant enough and actually make the effort to recognize that Ghanaian art is not Zimbabwean art, is not South African art, is not Malagasy art, is not Compton art, is not Harlem art. These are very different and distinct cultures and we're not a monolith. I hope that that is recognized and honored.

Who’s your art hero?

My dad [Tim Davis]. I'm the artistic director of MoCADA. My father is an artist and a gallery owner. He had a gallery for about 17 years that just closed in Washington, D.C. and I literally grew up in the studio and the gallery. He taught me everything I know about art appreciation and is absolutely the reason I'm here today and working with him in the context of Fade To Black. He curated the exhibition space which has been a really lovely experience and a dream come true. Yeah, my dad's my hero.

Tim Davis

Curator for International Visions Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Based in Washington, D.C.

Who is your art hero?

My art hero? It would be Jacob Lawrence in many ways because he is a pioneer to me. He did The Migration Series and what he created coming from the South to the North is indicative of my family, coming from the south to the north and establishing a new life.

Aisha Tandiwe Bell

Interdisciplinary artist

From New York City

What are your feelings or thoughts on the representation of artists of color at Art Basel and in the greater art world? What direction do you think we're headed in and what needs to happen?

Depends on what day you catch me. Sometimes, I'm more optimistic. I do feel like in the last 15 years very specifically, there has been an increase in the presence of people of color in the art world. Not just an increase, but a potential for them to make a living, because there's always been artists of color. They've been here. I've negotiated both the separate world of the black artist space—which is a completely isolated community—and the idea of crossing between one to the other like music in the '50s.

There's something about right now that feels like the '60s in a way. Social media has provided this other platform for people to be conscious, get access to information and allow people who wouldn't have a voice to communicate with other folks. Things that are happening with the police right now are not new. They've been happening the entire time, but now people have cell phones and there's videos and there's proof.

Kehinde Wiley

Portrait painter

Born in L.A. / Based in New York

What’s the connection with your art and today’s politics?

Politics today are so myriad. If I think about America—being an African-American in the truest sense, my father being from Nigeria, my mother being from Texas—we have to really think about internationalism. America has now been attacked by ISIS. France has now been attacked by ISIS. How do we as artists respond to this broad sense of social culpability? What responsibility do we have to people possibly feeling left out of the promise of civilization? This is real stuff. It's not conceptual. It's not an art project. It's real life. If artists don't get it, we're all lost.

Is it a duty for artists of color to address racism, oppression and/or to make identity art?

Every piece of art that we see, whether it be John Currin making objects of female desire for white male consumers to Ed Ruscha making clear notions of capitalist consumption rarefied, these are moments that identify who we are and where we come from. White maleness is just as important as black maleness. To a certain degree, all lives matter. I think that notion that black lives matter is in your question because you're really asking me about the blackness that surrounds that moment that needs to be protected and manicured, and really seen as special in this world.

What advice would you give to young artists of color right now?

The advice that I would give to young artists of color and the artists who are perceived as being of color would be just the same. There is a sense of authenticity that people smell. It's like blood in the water. When you really throw yourself out there as being yourself, as being a 23-year-old red haired white female artist from South Africa and you authentically express who you are, it goes within and without identity politics. People smell that you are being who you are and it has nothing to do with those fingers that we cross when we say "This is a black artist" or "This is a female artist." It's simply this is an authentic artist who's communicating her ideas.

YK Hong

Visual artist, anti-oppression trainer and community organizer

Born in the U.S. / Raised in Korea / Currently based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

What is the connection between your art and today’s politics?

All of my work comes from necessity and it comes out of being compelled. The origins are in my organizing work around anti-oppression. It’s very heavily based in work around classism and racism.

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel specifically and in the greater art world at large?

There’s still a huge gap, but I do believe that artists of color are creating their own spaces. For example, at Art Basel this year, there are several groups of folk who have put together event lists specifically for people of color and I think that’s happening more and more. In general, I think there’s still a huge struggle just the same as there is here at Basel.

Do you think it's a duty for artists of color to address racism, oppression and/or to make identity art?

I think it's the duty of everyone to fight for social justice. I think more so, it's the duty of white artists to combat racism. For artists of color, I think telling our stories is important, but combating racism, I think white artists need to step up.

Kenneth Montgomery

Attorney of criminal defense, civil rights and entertainment

Based in New York

How did you get involved with the panel today at Fade To Black?

I think I got into the panel because of some of the cases I’ve represented. I represented some people charged with terrorism. I represent some of the families of people who were killed by the New York City Police Department. There is an overlap with some of my cases and activism and the arts.

Do you think it's the duty of artists of color to address racism, oppression and/or to make identity art?

Why else are you doing this stuff if you're not going to be truthful about your experience? That's my opinion, but I'd much rather see people who are committed to speaking truth to power than people who are doing it out of a sense of obligation. Does that make sense?

Donnamarie Baptiste

Cultural producer, co-founder/producer of Fade To Black, Director of Marketing and Communications for Creative Time

Based in New York

What is Fade To Black?

Fade to Black is a project. It was really a concept that a group of us came up with. It's a celebration of artists of color during the week of Art Basel in Miami where we felt that artists of color were underrepresented, and being art world insiders, we felt that we wanted to bring our own flavor to the week.

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel and more broadly in the art world at large?

Yes, the landscape is changing. It’s slow. Change is often slow, but it is changing. The art world is looking to the continent of Africa, discovering the amazing talent there, India, Asia. Yes, the art world is definitely broadening and this week is proof of that.

What advice would you give to young artists of color right now?

Know that you are all powerful and don’t give up, never give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough.

Martei Korley

Photographer and Co-founder, Creative Director and Chief Photographer of LargeUp

Based in New York and Jamaica

Who is your art hero?

My art heroes are Monet, Caravaggio, Cézanne, Picasso, and Wilfred Limonious.

Coby Kennedy

Visual artist

New York City by way of Japan, by way of China, by way of D.C.

Do you feel that the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel?

Drastically. The situation for black artists has changed over the last 10 to 15 years. It goes hand in hand with the way the mainstream commercial fine art world is changing. There were so many rules not so long ago. Painting had its rules. Sculpture has its rules. Now everything's collapsing into itself and you can almost get away with anything and call it art as long as it's good, whatever that means. That opens up so many more opportunities to make the different kinds of art that we want to make.

How has the diaspora art community helped foster your career and your growth as an artist?

For many people of color, the structure of the black arts world is a very beneficial thing. A lot of times, the black arts world is looking for a particular type of thing. Sometimes it's an older aesthetic. Sometimes they want a new twist on an older aesthetic. A lot of the people that I've seen come up through art communities of a brown nature, making very progressive future-forward artwork have run into trouble. There's still a lot of roadblocks to jump over. There's still a lot of mud that needs to be smoothed out and paved over. A lot of things get stuck in a certain time, in a certain era that's celebrated in the black arts community. A lot of times, I've seen a lot of people of a brown persuasion having to go outside of the black arts community to really get their future-forward visions out there, when they challenge the old guard or the old aesthetic to get their stuff out there.

That being said, as everything else is changing in the art world, so is the black arts scene. Just, like, last year with the Afrofuturist exhibition [The Shadows Took Shape] at the Studio Museum [in Harlem], you see a lot of changes happening where people are still honoring the old guard of the black arts pantheon, but at the same time very much ushering in new concepts, new ideas, new ways of being. This is a really good time because in the next five or six, seven years, you're going to see not only a lot of things change in the mainstream commercial fine art world, but tons of things changing in the brown side of that. Yeah, it's a great time to be an artist. Great time to be a brown artist.

Storyboard P

Street dancer

Born and based in Brooklyn, New York

What do you think about the changing landscape for artists of color?

I think it's getting more pretentious. I think it's getting more pretend and people are keeping up their defenses. Where I live, there's no fences. There's one gate. It's always open.

Jumaane N'Namdi

Director of N'Namdi Contemporary in Miami

Born in Detroit / Currently in Miami

Do you feel the landscape is changing for artists of color at Art Basel?

It’s changing in the sense that it's growing. It's opening up just a little bit more. I'm not even saying that it was closed off before. Now people are seeing that they can come and do whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. Arts in general are really opening up and this is just another platform in which the arts are being presented and it's natural. The young, hot artists are African American so if you're at Art Basel then of course, they're going to be showing here.

Is there an obligation or any kind of duty for artists of color to address racism and oppression in their art or to create identity art?

In terms of artists feeling like they have to deal with racial issues and oppression, honestly, no. I'm not a big fan of that. That's something that's also being pushed on younger artists. They may not know it, but I think it puts them in a box. You're never really going to become the best painter or the greatest this or greatest that because—and you may not know it—you're categorizing your work.

Photos by Asha Efia

Produced and interviews by Ginny Suss & Alyssa Klein

Introduction by Alyssa Klein

Edited by Aaron Leaf, Alyssa Klein & Ginny Suss

Special thank you to MoCADA, Donnamarie Baptiste, Dejha Carrington and all artists, panelists and creatives involved in Fade To Black.

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