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January 9, 2024

Displaying The Diaspora

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The coronavirus epidemic affected pretty much every facet of modern life—even trickling down into the world of fine art, according to leading Chicago artist and gallerist Andre Guichard. COVID-19 caused people to “really come to understand the intrinsic value of art” in a new way, he believes.
While at one time they may have viewed art as external, something to decorate a home with, many have now realized that it’s actually more internal, “really mental health,” Guichard says. “Since COVID, it really has become because you are connected to those pieces … you are uplifted every day and don’t realize it because you live with original art.”
Indeed, post COVID-19 the Black art community is flourishing. “Even after and during a recession, we have found personally in just talking with other artists that art is alive and thriving; people are collecting.”
The recent social and racial unrest has also somehow played a part in all of that; Guichard notes how corporations started to “open up… and after a lot of the social justice flashpoints that we had, artists and galleries like ourselves have also seen an opening to our fine art culture in placing art in corporations, collecting art, putting Black faces in homes where Caucasians live, where 20 years ago that was something you rarely saw. It’s all part of kind of the lemonade and the lemons, where there have been some very positive things that have happened.”
Guichard is glad for the way Black art is being more widely appreciated and accepted. “We’re just artists,” he says. “We’re damn good artists, but we’re just artists… there’s an experience to the African diaspora that is very unique. I think that once people connect with the work, they don’t see color anymore.”
‘A calculated decision’
Guichard is well positioned to understand what is happening in the art world. He is an established and celebrated artist in his own right; in addition to private collections, his work has also been featured on canvas totes as part of Walgreens’ Community Corner program celebrating diversity.
Further, with his wife, Frances, and attorney Stephen Mitchell, he is co-owner of Guichard Gallery (“Art that touches the soul”) on Chicago’s South Side, where you will find portraits, landscapes, abstracts, “the whole gamut.” Among the global artists whose work has been celebrated there are Abiola Akintola, Stephen “Sayo” Olalekan, Pearlie Taylor and Marlene Campbell.
Guichard has had to learn to combine a businessman’s brain with an artist’s eye. As an artist and gallerist, he has to weigh the cost of reaching new audiences, as paying for space at major events can be really expensive. “It’s a calculated decision.”
One of those big “shop windows” Guichard has been involved with for years is the annual Art Basel showcase in Miami. It’s one of four major international art fairs (also in Basel, Switzerland; Paris; and Hong Kong). Including the fair “headquarters” itself at the Miami Convention Center and then all the satellite venues that spring around the city for those who can’t afford the center stage fees, there’s probably a million square feet of display space. “It’s pretty mind-blowing.”
When he first exhibited there a decade or so back, Guichard saw very few other artists of color. He attributes that to a couple of things—the prohibitive costs and also “the segregation that exists in our art community and is still prevalent.” Like in real estate, “some of the segregation could be put in place merely through price,” he notes.
Times have changed some- what, and Gallery Guichard “sells out almost every year.” Guichard tells a story to illustrate what has happened in the time he has participated in Art Basel, going back to an early occasion.
One of the artists he showcased there was Hebru Brantley, whose portrait “Everyone’s Scared” was bought by rapper Jay-Z. Guichard originally had it front and center in his display space but was told by the curation team for the fair he had to move it somewhere less attention-drawing because it was too disturbing.
“There was nothing provocative,” says Guichard. “There was nothing really that I would say [was] offensive other than the profile had Black features. So, his nose and lips looked like ours. His cheekbones looked like ours. His head, his skull looked like ours. But other than that there was a compilation of images, but it was all about this theme of we’re all scared for nothing.”
‘A great discovery’
After Jay-Z’s purchase, which he shared with his Twitter followers, “all of a sudden this painting that was so offensive and couldn’t be on the outside, they [the curation team] were fanning us because it was a great discovery.” Guichard sees the incident as an example of “those burdens of subjectivity that have nothing to do with anything.”
The Jay-Z connection also meant a material change: the artist’s selling price increased five times. And it speaks to how social media has opened up new doors of opportunity for artists. “You see the trajectory of your work go up because people start collecting,” Guichard says. “The gatekeepers became the stars. So, the Jay-Zs, the [movie director] George Lucases now had the power of the curator and the art critic… That was a great example of how that
platform works and is tied directly to people who have large [numbers of] followers.”
Brantley’s Jay-Z break- through also disguises the fact that the artist had been quietly building some measure of awareness by taking part in smaller events with less of a profile. Effective marketing is vital in helping raise a new artist’s profile.
“Understanding Art Basel is understanding the real estate and the location of these fairs, because all of those offer different opportunities or chances of your work being seen by one of those stars,”
Guichard explains, “getting into those key locations… so part of the challenge, like any retailer, is location, location, location, and with that comes price. And, then with that comes, how long have you been there to form relationships with the collectors who go to Art Basel every year, because that, at the end of the day, is really where the sales are made.”
Guichard encourages young African Americans to start collecting Black art for two reasons. “It allows us to pass on culture and our culture is so significant in the community,” he says. “Without a culture, I don’t care how much money you have, people still will never look up to you.”
The second driver is wealth. “Too often, we don’t understand and look at our Black art and artists as an appreciating commodity,” Guichard says. Like real estate, it’s an investment opportunity that many Blacks were excluded from for too long, he believes.
Remember that these original works are going to be around 300 to 500 years, passing through multiple generations, he says. “So as a young person—out of school, postgraduate, late-20s, 30s—that is the prime time to start your collection because your commensurate artists moving in their career will be at emerging prices that will be very different if you wait until you’re in your 40s and 50s and a lot more seasoned in your career.”
At its heart, art is about storytelling. So what are the stories that are being told in today’s Black art?
“We are seeing stories of family and love,” Guichard says. “As far as African artists, we are griots—we are a storytelling people and we’ve always done it in word, but
over time our fine artists have been documentarians of life and we are continuing to be that. So, while you do still see lots of work about social justice and what’s happening today, in my work I also like to connect with love and the family and the stories that we don’t also always see in the media about African Americans and the fact that we are a very sophisticated, multifaceted people.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.