The year 2016 has been fraught with political unrest, discord, and so much tension you can feel it like the crackling of electricity in the air. With a Trump presidency looming and many Americans expressing fear of what that regime change will look like, the art world is responding in kind. This year’s Art Basel is no exception, pulling no punches when it comes to making both overt and subtle statements addressing the current political climate.
Upon entering Art Basel Miami Beach, visitors are greeted by a large illuminated sign from artist Sam Durant emblazoned with the words “End White Supremacy,” which hangs as the focal point outside the booth of the international gallery Blum & Poe. And while this work is from 2008, its inclusion was undoubtedly a timely and strategic move by the gallerists, its placement at the front of the convention center entrance a bold and telling signal of pronounced theme of more politically charged art work than in previous years.
“It was very important for us to take this as an opportunity to use this as a platform to express how we were feeling, how a lot of our colleagues are feeling, our clients, and our artists. Even before the election we had an idea in mind for how the booth would reflect the current situation and after the election it made more sense to really push it further,” says Sarvia Jasso, associate director of Blum & Poe. Its booth is gritty and topical, with sculptures and paintings glimpsing into facets of urban life and the impact of systems of oppression from the perspective of diverse artists.
Booths like Blum & Poe, while not the majority in Art Basel's endless sea of exhibits, were not alone in feeling the need to make a statement with the strategic choices of display. While art has always been a major vehicle of protest and expression of discontent (however diluted by the pretentiousness of art fairs like Basel), what was different this year was the intentionality and sense of urgency from artists, gallerists, and curators to not simply be on trend but to spark deeper conversations.
Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work is certainly part of that conversation, with the stenciled text reading boldly, “THE TYRANNY OF COMMON SENSE HAS REACHED ITS FINAL STAGE” plastered atop pages from the November 9 edition of the New York Times. “Artists have always responded to politics, whether directly by being involved in protests or indirectly by making art and expressing themselves through whatever their chosen medium might be. And even walking around the fair you get the sense that people are engaging on an artist level in politics in a very direct way,” says Emily Bates, assistant director at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise where some Tiravanija’s work is being displayed.
Art Basel primarily caters to a small portion of the population with the means to travel across the country collecting art that often costs as much as a luxury sedan, so it's ironic that it's also a platform for artist commentary on greed, opulence, and the ills of capitalism. Whether such art serves as an indictment or a mockery of the industry or our society at large can be argued, but the personal has always been political in the art world. And this year, people were taking more notice.
“It seems to be everywhere, even subtly. But I wonder if it may not even be so much of the art itself, or if it’s simply the climate which puts you in that mind state and sort of forces you to look closer and reexamine things you’re seeing through a different lens. Kinda the same way people are looking closer and examining our lives and the world we live in,” says 27-year-old attendee Khareem Evelyn.
Hot-button topics like immigration, worker’s rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and Black Lives Matter were also prevalent themes. One of the voices heard over the noise belonged to well known feminist and social activist Andrea Bowers, whose are paintings serve as an homage to the anonymous children of immigrants. Her hand-painted protest signs carry messages like, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system” and “When we’re screwed we multiply.” Nothing subtle about that. But not all of it was in your face. There is something to say about the transformative power of representation.
Step into the booth of the New York-based Jack Shainman Gallery, where the work of celebrated artists of color like Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Nina Chanel Abney, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Radcliffe Bailey are on display. Works from these artists, while of course radically different in style and medium, convey parts of the life for people of color that are not often part of the narrative. From Odutola’s tendency to depict black bodies in lavish textures and settings to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s “Sing Songs to Any Sinner,” which simply depicts a young black man sitting and intently reading, these images stray from the dominant and often dehumanizing images of poverty and oppression in which we have become accustomed to seeing black and brown bodies.
Jeremy Kaplan, director Jack Shainman Gallery, noticed the shift. “I do think that there is more representation of people of color in this fair than I’ve seen in the past.... I think some of the galleries are reacting to the fact that there has been underrepresentation for many years, not just in the art world or commercial galleries, but in institutions, and are finally trying to correct that. But certainly I’ve seen more Black women as the subject this year than ever before.” A nearby enormous bronze bust of activist and scholar Angela Davis by Pedro Reyes, among other works, seems to confirm that the theme of Black Lives Matter continues to resonate.
It comes as no surprise that the presidential candidates also made an appearance this year as the subjects of art. A pinched-face pencil drawn portrait of Hillary Clinton by Karl Haendel hangs in the booth of Susanne Vielmetter, looking hardened and stoic, as she was often portrayed by the media. Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of a once youthful President Barack Obama from 2008 featured by Gladstone Gallery is striking in its ability to remind us of a time when the country and its leader was brimming with hope. In a piece by Jonathan Horowitz entitled Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely., which derives its title from a quote from Trump, the president-elect is pictured golfing with his backside toward the camera, facing a orange glowing sun, a sky ablaze.
But what cannot be denied is that there are some very different conversations being had in the world, and undeniably it is reflected on the prominent world stage of Art Basel.
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Of course, these contexts and heavy connotations are not lost on Basel-goers and art collectors from around the world, even if they do reside in bubbles largely untouched by the potentially dangerous impacts and implications of a Trump presidency.
“Artists are in shock. The art world is in shock,” says Chiara Repetto, co-owner of Kaufmann Repetto. “We sell to people whose political ideologies do not align with our own, because that is the reality. But we also want to have a voice and express our discontent. But I’ve spoken with a lot of artists who can barely do their work, but they want to participate in the dialogue so they encouraged us to show certain work…. The reality is that the one percent is a big part of a our clientele, and honestly we do have to be careful because we have to maintain and support ourselves. Sadly, we have to compromise sometimes. Or we can not compromise and give up a sale. But a gallery, especially a young gallery, exists on a small margin.”
While is Art Basel can often be a pompous parade for elitist wannabes, VIP ticket-holders, pretentious pretenders, and those simply dying to be seen with the social elite, this year’s display proved wildly and surprisingly attune to the times, placing at the forefront art that acts as a conversation with a world still reeling. Whether or not you side with Anton Chekhov’s assertion that “the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them,” it does seem that everywhere you look the art begs the question, "Who are we now?"
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sarvia Jasso's name.