Returning to its full in-person scale and customary June schedule after three years, the 2022 edition of Art Basel turns the spotlight on rising talents and artists of African descent. Contributing writer Rémy Jarry scoured the grounds of Messe Basel and reports on those that stood out from the crowd.
TEXT: Rémy Jarry
IMAGES: Courtesy of Art Basel
Held only three weeks after its Hong Kong edition, Art Basel has capitalised on timely synergies with the ongoing Venice Biennale and the rise of Afro-Western talents for its home edition in Basel, Switzerland, which concluded on 19 June 2022. Across the four-day event, the fair welcomed some 70,000 visitors to the booths of 289 galleries hailing from 40 countries and territories.
The postponement of Art Basel Hong Kong from March to late May for the second year in a row has compelled the mega fair to find extra room for growth on top of the trade of the accustomed modern masters and the canonised stars of contemporary art. This urge was amplified by the continuum of fairs since early May—including TEFAF New York, Taipei Dangdai, and Frieze New York—along with major sales in modern and contemporary art organised by leading auction houses over the same period.
“The Milk of Dreams”, the 59th Venice Biennale curated by Italian curator Cecilia Alemani, has opportunely consecrated a pool of talents off the beaten track of the global art market. Such an alignment of the fair is not new, but the biennale’s emphasis on female artists and minorities has achieved a more conspicuous reshuffle of the lineup of artists presented at Art Basel last week. This assessment is particularly noticeable among female talents, starting with German artists standing out throughout generations from Rebecca Horn, Rosemarie Trockel, Cosima von Bonin to Raphaela Vogel. American sculptress Simone Leigh and Canadian artist Tau Lewis have also gained greater exposure at the fair in the wake of their breakthrough at the biennale. This empowerment has also benefited a few male artists such as Argentinian sculptor Gabriel Chaile.
At the same time, the fair has endorsed a wider range of Afro-Western and African talents. In this regard, Number 341 (2022), the spectacular installation conceived like a deflagration by American artist Leonardo Drew for Art Basel Unlimited remains one of the landmarks of the 2022 edition. In the same section, British sculptor Thomas J. Price has also gained momentum with Moment Contained (2022), a 3.7-metre tall sculpture of a young girl, along with Ouattara Watts, the American artist from Ivory Coast showing a large painting titled Vertigo #3 (2011) inspired by African spirituality. Female talents were also noticeable: Uganda-born sculptress Leilah Babirye, British visual artist Rachel Jones, American fibre artist Bisa Butler and American photographer Deana Lawson have added further variety thanks to their distinctive practices and media.
Those artists complete a longer list of other acclaimed ones at the fair: El Anatsui, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yinka Shonibare, Barthélémy Togo, Chris Ofili, and Kehinde Wiley especially. This “Afrophilia” has also been fostered by the presence of new galleries: Mariane Ibrahim who has spaces in Chicago and Paris focusing on African and African diaspora artists, as well as Jahmek Contemporary Art from Luanda, Angola, and OH Gallery from Dakar, Senegal, which have both made their debuts in the Art Basel Statements sector. As evidence of an ongoing ripple effect, it’s also worth noticing that some of the galleries have been representing these artists for less than a year, such as Leigh with Matthew Marks, Watts with Almine Rech and Butler with Jeffrey Deitch. Some galleries, such as Thaddaeus Ropac with British artist Rachel Jones also aim at privileging sales to museums rather than private collectors in order to strengthen the institutional recognition of these emerging artists.
This emphasis on inclusivity and gender balance is less noticeable among Asian artists. Most of the exhibited artists are familiar names in the Western context: Lee Ufan, Lee Bae, Zao Wou-Ki, Ai Weiwei, Zeng Fanzhi and Rirkrit Tiravanija, to name a few. Yet, Japanese female artist Rei Naito has induced a new impulse with breath (2018-2022), a minimalist installation composed of four small mirrors, two vases with flowers and a narrow ditch of water, conceived as an invitation to meditate on life and death. Obviously, the proximity of Art Basel Hong Kong has been a challenge. In addition, the ongoing travel restrictions in China have made it even more difficult: the teams of White Space from Beijing and Antenna Space from Shanghai haven’t been able to come to the fair in Basel and have hired representatives. Chinese collectors have suffered from the same constraints, despite the online access to the fair.
The shadowed presence of Asian artists in light of their global market weight can also be seen as an attempt to segment the programme of each fair—Miami, Hong Kong, Basel, and Paris from October 2022—to ensure greater complementarity and visibility. Such a segmentation also reflects the rising geopolitical tensions across the continents, while moving towards a “glocalisation” of the art market.
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