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Gordon Parks

Ellen Crying, Harlem, New York, 1967

16 x 20 inches

Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation ©The Gordon Parks Foundation

"You do not understand America without Black America," said Paul Gardullo, Curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., in 2016 in the columns of New York Times. The lesson seems to be heard at Art Basel. The “Unlimited” section features a number of black American artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Arthur Jafa, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Nick Cave. At the fair, there are many galleries exhibiting black artists beginning with Jack Shainman (New York), showing Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall. In the Feature section, Jenkins Johnson (San Francisco) turns the spotlight to photographer Gordon Parks, who chronicled the years of racial segregation and the struggle for Civil Rights. Poignant testimonies of disadvantaged families in Harlem in the 1940s and of ordinary racism in the 1960s. Karen Jenkins-Johnson is the first black gallery owner to join Art Basel. "I am still considered a second-class citizen, and at the fair, people tend to address my white team rather than me,” she sighs, “But we are beginning to reap the rwards of the fight started by our parents. There is still a long way to go, but there is also hope."

 

The slow recognition of the African American scene dates back to the 1970s. Melvin Edwards is the first African American artist to enjoy inclusion a 1970 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The year 1997 marks a turning point: the satirical painter Robert Colescott represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, while his colleague Kerry James Marshall was invited to the Documenta in Cassel. "The System of art has always been dominated by white men. But over the past three years,” says Karen Jenkins-Johnson, "it began to change. It is not just the fair and The Studio Museum in Harlem that are interested in Africans Americans, but all the American museums are beginning to include black artists." They are driven by increasingly active black collectors. A. C. Hudgins, trustee of the MoMA, has given several works of David Hammons, Senga Nengudi and Henry Taylor to the New York museum, and he convinced his friend, the financier Henry Kravis, to buy works by Mark Bradford and Kevin Beasley.

 

Other collectors, among the most powerful in the art world, are also setting an example. In 2009, the Rubell Familly Collection in Miami dedicated their walls to thirty African-American artists, including Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson, and Kehinde Wiley who are now counted among the most celebrated American artists. This year, Mark Bradford represents the United States at the Venice Biennale (until November 26). His participation was a win against another black American artist, Kara Walker, known for her work about slavery. At Art Basel, African American artists are gaining ground. Jack Shainman has sold a very large painting by Kerry James Marshall for $2.5 million. Blum Poe was offering a painting by Henry Taylor, Cicely and Miles visit the Obamas, for $100,000; a tribute to the couple Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis. The Californian artist, trained at CalArts, has forty collectors on the waiting list. A craze which amuses Tim Blum, whose interest in the African scene did not begin yesterday. "It's funny to see white buyers waiting for six months for works by Taylor, he confides with a smile. “It's like these moments where everybody wants to buy women, Chinese, or Japanese”. Some collectors, however, spontaneously go to these artists without worrying about their origins. This is the case of Argentinian collector, Patricia Verges, who bought work by Lorna Simpson at the booth of Nathalie Obadia (Paris, Brussels). "By the way,” she questions, "is this an African American artist"? Is this a good artist or not?" replied the gallery owner.