Being Black At Miami Art Basel


In 2007 I attended my first Miami Art Basel, the largest art fair in the western hemisphere, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the overwhelming experience, best defined as serious sensory overload, it was clear to me that African artists were still absent from the US art scene. Frankly, I travelled to suss out the status and trajectory of fine art from Africa. I learnt a lot, met some interesting folks and took lots of notes and photos. I felt that one day it would be important to narrate my “dare to think big attitude” confident that the art of Africa and Ethiopia in particular would be of interest and value to art aficionados in the blue chip art world. By the way, the usual yet brilliant, namely Ethiopian artist, Julie Mheretu and Nigerian, Yinka Shonibare had several works proudly displayed by cutting edge galleries.
For art lovers in Addis, let me give you a snap shot of what Miami Art Basel is like. Imagine the Sheraton Addis Art Show and Addis Foto Fest combined and on super steroids in a 5600 square meter facility with 7meter high ceilings and a security system equivalent to that of the Whitehouse, with all the mega stars from film, fashion, music and lots of moguls with deep pockets and Don Perignom flowing all in a sizzling Miami Beach setting. Whew! Admittedly it’s also a big beach party. I had invitations to private parties, one for famous African American painter Kehinde Wiley who was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Kehinde is also the founder of Black Rock in Dakar, an aritsts’ residence that opened in Spring 2019. Yes, watch for this trend, they are coming home and bringing the buyers with them.
Back to Basel and the current status of Black art. Atlanta based, Sonia Wignall, is an Afro-Cuban cultural writer who states in, “In 2018, it is said that the dominance of black art at Basel caused some to question whether it was indeed Art Basel, or “Black Basel”. Almost every gallery, museum and exhibit carried a portion of black art as a prominent masterpiece to compliment and bring rhythm to the overall exhibit. This was not always so.” Sonia goes on to say, “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 entranced 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.”
However, New York Times John Eligon, who mostly documents the nuances of America’s struggles with race, writes, “At a time when black creators are being celebrated as much as ever – from Hollywood to the fine arts – some are raising the question of whether black people are truly the main beneficiaries of the culture they produce. That theme is at the center of an exhibition opening on Wednesday in Miami, outside of the official Art Basel program, bluntly titled “Who Owns Black Art?” But Eligon goes on to touch on other issues that in my mind help us address the economic and social side of Black art. “In one sense, it’s calling attention to the need for black people to become more active as art buyers so as not to miss out on potentially lucrative investments. In another sense, it’s about the dearth of black-owned galleries. And it also addresses underrepresentation among the ranks of museum staff, fair directors and other arbiters who have significant influence over which works and artists get elevated.”
With these sentiments in mind, myself and partner Artist Leul Merid Tafesse have invested in attending Art Basel on three occasions – 2007, 2009 and 2014. In the latter year I decided it was time to show the work of Ethiopian artists under Greater Miami Visitors and Conventions Art of Black, an initiative to promote and provide more platforms, during Miami Basel, for Black artists from the USA, Caribbean, South America and Africa. We found an incredible space, one of the oldest churches in Miami with a foliage filled foyer and block walls seemingly waiting to display the art of Desta Hagos, Daniel Taye, Merid Tafesse, Ermias Mazengia, Mathias Lulu and photographer, Birhan Tonge. During Basel, exhibitions pop up everywhere and why not a sacred space overstanding that art comes from the most spiritual part of an artist. Moral of the story is that the recognition of African creatives by others has always been a “day late and a dollar short” as the saying goes but now is the time for us to be prepared and organized so the New York Times can one day write “Africans Benefit From and Own Black Art.”

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.