Hot Black Artists, Hotter Scene at Art Basel

It seemed like the right time and the right place for black talent this year. And then there were the parties.

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Hank Willis Thomas‘ iconic photographs, which often merge race, history and popular culture, are sold by Shainman for $30,000 each. It was Thomas’ first trip to ABMB seven years ago that convinced him to become an artist. Of that time he said, “I didn’t know that my work would be worth as much.” He also said that success for one black artist means success for all in the tight-knit community where they often encourage one another along.

It’s not just the presence of black artists that has increased at ABMB. There are more black collectors, dealers, art advisers, curators and celebrities making the scene. Not only did Will Smith make it to ABMB, but P. Diddy was also there, throwing parties and, as he said while in the convention center, “taking it all in.”

Pharrell Williams was there headlining several events and trying to add to his art collection. The N.E.R.D. front man was disappointed to find out that something he wanted had already sold. When asked about being a bona fide collector among peers who don’t all follow his lead, the entertainer said, “Art is an acquired taste.”

That appetite has put him at the nexus of music and art, and he has collaborated with Takashi Murakami as well as other notable fine artists. Nas, Solange Knowles and Naomi Campbell also participated in various side events during the week.

This year, longtime attendee Russell Simmons and his brother Danny Simmons, who is a painter and co-founder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, joined forces with Bombay Sapphire to launch a nationwide art competition. It culminated with the winner being announced in Miami while ABMB was in full swing.

Their Rush Arts Gallery also held a show of alumni work entitled “15×15” in Miami’s famed Design District. The 15th-anniversary exhibition featured 15 standout artists, including Sanford Biggers and Wangechi Mutu, along with a portfolio of prints available for sale. Not to be left out of the party game, the Simmons clan threw their annual brunch, which brought together celebs, artists, dealers, curators and collectors.

Naomi Beckwith, who curated at the Studio Museum in Harlem before moving on to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, said that what is interesting to her this year is “not just the art on the walls, but how active black artists are outside the gallery system.” One example is Nick Cave’s alliance with Fendi. Beckwith said, “You see the broader cultural world becoming more aware of artists of color outside of just the realm of their commercial value.” She added that they are taking the lead in the social scene as well.

One of those artists is Kehinde Wiley, who not only is a top seller  — his painting Terence Nance, with an asking price of $100,000, sold on the first day of the fair — but also threw a darn good fish fry to close out ABMB. Wiley, a Rush alum, said, “As recently as the early ’90s, the art world would only allow a certain amount of artists of color to be part of the critical and cultural conversation. Right now I think the broader community is very excited to be able to see this level of diversity.”

But perhaps Wiley best summed up not just the increased black presence in all aspects of the art world but also the allure of that world itself when he said that for so many, art consumption is now “sexy.”

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. She has been attending Art Basel Miami Beach since 2004. Follow her on Twitter @jwalkreporter.

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