antonia-williams-gary_2_web.jpgThis year, there are so many more attractions for one to enjoy the ‘black’ art experience amongst the many galleries at Art Basel, and all the other related shows and events. (In my article last week, I previewed several of the highlights that I know will satisfy a wide range of tastes, pocket-books, sensibilities and interests).

I don’t think there is any longer debate about how the expressions of the human experience through art enhance everyday life. It brings us joy to see things of beauty in our homes, in public places or in museums, private or public.

This year will feature an outstanding growth in the number of art shows, artists and events that focus on the ‘black’ art experience. And each year, the same question is raised about the dearth of black art/black artists at every Art Basel, and if art/artists should be so classified as ‘black.’

Isn’t it all art? What is black art and/or the black art experience? That raises another question. Whose experience? The African-American? The Caribbean-American? The Haitian-American?  Africans? Blacks from other regions of the world? Is black art by black artists only? Can non-blacks express the black experience?

Some would argue that any talented artist can render a universally recognized object or experience. For instance, it might be difficult to ascribe a particular geo-political, racial, or cultural interpretation to the depiction of some pretty flowers rendered in an oil painting, a photo, a metal sculpture, wood carving or any other medium. Or would it? What if the flowers were shown growing from the ruins of a diamond mine in South Africa? What if the artist was a black African? What if it was by a white South African artist? Would knowing the race or ethnicity of the artist change how we feel about the image?

For me, that is the central answer in the ongoing debate about ‘black’ art and ‘black’ artists: the feeling evoked in me, the viewer, once the prism through which the image is produced is known. Does my feeling and perspective change once I know?

The most basic reaction is to a personal experience with the same or similar circumstance. Even more basic is that the image looks like them or places or circumstances familiar to the viewer. Art should evoke a visceral response – it should move the viewer to feel something – from euphoria to rage, and everything in between. Are black viewers moved differently by the works of black artists? Can I will myself to feel differently knowing the race or ethnicity of the artist? Does the artist take the black viewer’s response in consideration? Does the artist care? 

Here is one example from my own collection: the image is of one of Yemaya – one of the Orishas (a black Goddess) from the Cuban-based Santeria religion, which was painted by a white Cuban. The image appealed to me because I had begun collecting images of the black Madonna and child. I met the artist, Chago, who grew up with a great respect for the Santeria religion. I felt a kindred spirit in him, and I liked the painting.

It is my kind of ‘black’ art. The image evoked a good feeling in me; the portrayal of the ‘black’ experience of synchronizing the slave religion with the establishment religion; the artists’ sensitivity, and an appealing image.

Some individual artists will tell you that they are producing ‘art’— not ‘black’ art, not Asian art, not Caribbean art.  You will hear plenty of debate about this throughout the week. It was prevalent last year, and will continue until there is total parity in the world of art production, collection and pricing. But we are a long way from that time.

In the meantime, therein lay the conundrum: Art should exist for art’s sake. Art is by, of, and for the people. Right?

I invite you to join in the debate. Learn what drives you to enjoy one form of artful expression over another; why some artists seem to capture your imagination and speak to your personal experiences better than others; why some artists (who are not black) can touch your heart and soul; and why ‘black’ art and black artists need to be celebrated, embraced, better understood and more widely collected.

There are several panel discussions on the issue of ‘black’ art taking place throughout the week. One of the most comprehensive ‘guides’ I’ve seen, so far, is published on line by Noire Miami at miami.com/noire-miami. Check out the entire list of offerings for this year’s Art Basel.

You will find me at Prizm Premier, Dec. 5 at 11:11 p.m. at the Marquis for futuristic expressions by black artists; Dec. 6, for a Yinka Shonibare film on the Miami Symphony Wall, as a starter.

Culminating the week, join me at the University of Miami African Studies Program for the fourth annual panel discussion: “Contemplating the State of African Diaspora Fine Art in the Global Arena,” Sunday, Dec. 8, 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. The brunch following is great. Be sure to RSVP: 305-302-9192.

See you there!


Antonia Williams-Gary may be reached at Toniwg1@gmail.com