There is an undercurrent of culture, symbolism and understanding that is inherent in the people of African Diaspora, that can be studied from the outside, but can never really be understood or practiced from those outside of the continent.
The art which emanates from the people of the African Diaspora represents that culture.
In 2018, it is said that the dominance of black art at Basel caused some to question whether Is was indeed Art Basel, or “Black Basel”. Almost every gallery, museum and exhibit carried a portion of black art as a prominent master piece to compliment and bring rhythm to the overall exhibit. This was not always so.
November 2019, saw black art sales in record number, so did 2018, 17, 16, etc. There is no denying that the pace and explosion of black art is a major driving force and contributor to the growing economic impact of contemporary art in the marketplace.
It is “trendy” today, to have black art as part of the collection.
Nigerian Curator, Okwui Enwezor who left a significant and expansive impact on black art globally understood that this time was coming. Considered to be one of the leading curators in the world, Enwezor was a major contributor to the rise and prominence of black art and more importantly black culture globally. A well educated curator, he understood the times, the opportunity and the need. He was bold and progressive in thought, and pushed passed the invisible limitations to bring the African Diaspora Art and culture into full view.
According to a New York Times article, “his large-scale exhibitions displaced European and American art from its central position as he forged a new approach to art for a global age. He presented contemporary art against a backdrop of world history and cultural exchange”. As noted, it is in the exhibition of the art that the cultural influence is most prominent.
The African Diaspora culture the foundation of the art serves to integrate several artistic mediums, in the message.This includes music, dance, poetry, and sculpture. Two of the leading black sculptors of the 19th century, Eugene Warbourg and Mary Edmonia Lewis, were the first artist to engage in that field. One of the most distinguished was artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. In the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance emerged as the ‘New Negro’ movement.
This movement set the stage for the influence of black art and culture. The renaissance continued in Harlem and beyond become more prominent today.
The culture of the people of the African Diaspora is coming into an age of global interest and honor, beyond naked poor people, and children with swollen bellies. It is the culture that is on exhibit. It is the power, rhythm and the sensuality of the culture that can be seen in the art. It is almost as if the world has become so entrance with the art, that the yearning to capture it is now all but consuming the global art marketplace, and consequently rocking the art market to its core.
The rawness of the African Diaspora experience and culture can no longer be denied, or ignored. It has become the celebrated icon of the art world. Artist that before could not get a seat at the table are not only invited for dinner, but being paid handsomely for their presence.
The global demand for original works of art from people of African descent is taking the art world by storm and force, creating worldwide interest and influence. No longer is this work being ignored, sideline, or marginalized. Major players, collectors, art investors, museums, and galleries are pining for a market share of the billion dollar Global African Diaspora Art market. This market is now trending in a very economically powerful and culturally significant way.
The Market has become so giddy with black art, that the appeal has gone beyond beauty and esthetics to a pure insatiable desire for any original black art that hits the market.
Now everyone is or wants to become an expert in black art, Whether they understand the culture, history or the unspoken movement behind the art they are brokering seems not to matter. If they collect, or have an expansive collection, they are considered an expert.
Museums and galleries that once shon the black art presence is clamoring to get in on the action. What is happening is not only unprecedented, but mind boggling, but it is all economically driven. Once again, like slavery, the works of the people of the African Diaspora are being used to make the non-diaspora art market quite prosperous.
The irony however remains significant. The elephant in the room has not left. Nor is he laying down to sleep. The politics that surrounds the African Diaspora culture has neither changed nor matured with the rise and popularity of black art culture.
The same culture that creates the art that is making a global economic impact is the same culture on display in the everyday lives of the people of the African Diaspora. Yet again the people of the African Diaspora continue to face cultural discrimination in the art marketplace worldwide.
Herein lies the Elephant in the room. How does one celebrate the culture of the people, but not the people themselves, when the people are the culture. Discrimination in the Art world, mirrors that of outside the art world. Galleries and museums engage in selective disrimination. The number of available black curators is not reflective in the diversity of the museums and galleries curatorial staff. White curators continue to dominate the black art market place with only a studied, not livable knowledge of the culture of the art they are representing and brokering.
The inherent understanding of the African Diaspora culture becomes organically unrelatable to the gallery or museum in which the art is on display. It only becomes an opportunity to buy, or broker. It becomes “black art slavery”.
Art Basel Miami Beach represents a unique opportunity to bridge the gap and move beyond the “Slavery” arena. The Fair takes place in one of the most culturally strategic cities in the world. The Miami fair is one of the largest Basel Fair city representing a diverse mix of people from the African Diaspora, Carribean and Latin Nations, who’s work will be on display during Basel week.
Understanding the cultural significance of this should not be lost. The rich cultural diversity of the city should be promoted, and leveraged. Recognizing the expanse and beauty of the diverse Miami culture, would serve both Art Basel Miami Beach and the people of Miami well, not to mention increase attendance and interest from surrounding Caribbean and Latin countries that are close to the Miami basin.
To include Black, Latin, and Caribbean curators, in the Miami show exhibits and galleries would be a significant statement on the legitimacy of the “Basel” interest in art,culture,and diversity globally, thereby making Basel a true “ international show”, not a Europen based show with some diverse art.
So let’s see, if the 2018 Elephant will be in the room for Basel 2019, or if he finally went home to rest, drink some “cafe cubano, play the steel drum, and watch BET”.
Sonia Wignall is an Afro-Cuban cultural writer based in Atlanta. She is passionate about Contemporary African Diaspora Art, music and film.