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At Independent Art Fair, Young Artists Explore Heritage, Identity and Healing

New York’s first ever Art Week is in full swing. Running May 5 to 12, the city is abuzz with local and tourist art aficionados as four major art fairs and over 20 museums, galleries and auction houses host countless events and programs. Opening to the public today, Independent Art Fair returned to Spring Studios in Tribeca for its 13th edition with a display of over 65 emerging and mid-sized exhibitors. While it’s expected of galleries to put their best foot forward at an art fair, Independent felt innovative and diverse—a snapshot of some of the most exciting talents in contemporary art.

Heritage and Identity

This year, many exhibitors chose to bring works by young and emerging artists exploring personal and collective heritage and identity, in both figural and abstract forms. In Nicola Vassell’s booth, three large, colorful paintings by self-taught artist Uman lent an intoxicating energy. Born in Somalia, Uman grew up in Kenya and Denmark before moving to New York. With rich, vibrant colors and compositions that toe the line of figuration and abstraction, her works explore this varied cultural heritage, as well as gender fluidity and spirituality.

Nearby, moniquemeloche presents a solo booth of portraits of Black figures by Harlem-based artist David Shrobe. Pairing a range of rich textiles, paint and ink with mixed elements like wood, photographic prints and gemstones, Shrobe creates layered, textured works that rethink the history of classical portraiture as a tool to represent the elite. He draws inspiration from his family and neighborhood in Harlem, as well as references to art history to portray Black archetypes absent from portraiture.

Reframing traditional systems and American life is Devin N. Morris, whose mixed media paintings are on view in Deli Gallery’s booth. Through dream-like scenes in assemblaged frames, Morris explores themes of innocence, acts of kindness and racial and sexual identity, in particular male interactions and the experience of being both Black and queer.

Healing Through Art

While much of the art from the last two years touched on themes of isolation, healing emerge as a popular theme in this edition. A welcome departure from the predominately two-dimensional works of other booths, Derek Eller Gallery brings a stunning yarn and mixed media sculpture by Michelle Segre. Standing over 10 feet tall, Orbit of the Haggis (2020) dominated the booth. Resembling a giant dream catcher, the work relates to Segre’s interest in art as a means to connect, transform and heal. Attached to the black, woven structure is a large, rock-like ball painted in a vibrant, almost electrified blue.

Another highlight of the fair is Nicelle Beauchene Gallery’s presentation of mixed-media relief paintings by Ruby Sky Stiler alongside a cotton and corduroy quilt by Carey George of Alabama’s historic Gee’s Bend, a celebrated group of Black women who have been making quilts for generations and recently earned the attention of the blue-chip art world, exemplified in Hauser and Wirth’s dedicated show earlier this spring.

vanessa german. Photography courtesy of Kasmin Gallery and Independent.

At Clearing, Marguerite Humeau explores the medicinal qualities of plants with an elegant gold sculpture of an exploded poppy flower. Part of her series “Energy Flows,” the work relates to the ancient Doctrine of Signatures theory that some plants resemble the effect they have on humans. Humeau’s poppy rests like a sleeping head with seeds bursting like a web of dreams.

Artist, poet, and activist vanessa german is no stranger to art as a form of personal and social healing. She often uses her art to challenge the effects of historic and current injustices, racism and sexism. In her works on display in Kasmin’s booth, german presents small, figural sculptures made of miscellaneous found objects and materials including shells, earrings, braids,and keys.

Creative Growth. Photography courtesy of Creative Growth and Independent New York.

An Art Fair That Gives Back

After a tumultuous two years for people around the globe, a spirit of charity also pervaded this year’s edition in the form of three nonprofit booths selling lower cost artworks to fundraise give-back efforts. RxART, an organization that partners with some of contemporary art’s biggest names to bring art into hospitals, is presenting works by Loie Hollowell, Derrick Adams and Harold Ancart. The booth also features a playful, pink installation by Nicolas Party that connects the space to the artist’s project at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Raising funds for The Coalition for the Homeless, Artware Editions presents its Artist Plate Project, which puts iconic artworks by the likes of Joel Mesler and Carmen Herrera on dishes. Across the mezzanine, Creative Growth, a nonprofit that supports artists with developmental disabilities, displayed a selection of vibrant, abstract works by Nicole Storm. Exuding a palpable energy, Storm’s practice has a performative element stemming from her process of creating them while in constant motion, not in a studio, but rather as she moves about her daily life. 

While art fairs are notorious for exhausting visitors, Independent was refreshing and inspiring. The works on view told stories, challenged histories and invited the viewer to ask questions other than, “Is this available?”