For most people, hosting a Southern Fish Fry would seem antithetical to Miami’s glitzy Art Basel Week. But world-famous fine artist Kehinde Wiley is not “most people.” The New York-based creative marches to the beat of his own drum with a star-studded list of admirers, including Beyonce, Jay Z, Solange, Santigold and Russell Simmons.
As the Edition Hotel slowly populated Sunday evening with an edgy, friendly crowd, it felt more like a family reunion than the closing of Art Basel week — which is exactly what Wiley aimed for when he created the event a few years ago.
“A lot of my friends who are artists who came to Miami Art Basel and got tired of watching the sales happen. It’s a little uncomfortable, quite honestly, to be part of the Basel marketplace, but we really enjoyed going out into the ocean and catching fish. And so it happened really naturally where we just had this party, this spontaneous fish fry, and we had a great time and the following years we repeated it, and if you look around, you’ll see the highest percentage of artists than at any other event here because it’s about us.”
Miami Beach Art Basel always feels like a hurricane of art and events that are carefully controlled by velvet ropes, VIP invites and sales records. It’s rare to feel like you “belong” anywhere. But Wiley has made a career of giving people their rightful place.
Legendary art collector and Miami resident, Meera Rubell noted about his work, “He’s put an urban black kid on a King’s horse and that’s a big statement on what dignity is about, what humanity is about and how far we’ve come.”
Wiley’s mission as an artist set the tone for the night’s chill essence. The crowd carousing on the hotel’s Tropicale lawn was eclectic and warm. Strangers flowed in and out of conversations with ease with emerging artists like Tony Gum and jewelry designer Castro as the DJ kept people grooving while waiting for for Lauryn Hill’s performance under the palms.
Music is an integral part of Wiley’s work playing into its conception as well as its creation. “Everything from jazz — I’m obsessed with Charles Mingus to Nina Simone, there has to be a musical component to the act of painting, because when you’re in the room, you have to empty out your mind, you have to really think about the physicality of painting and actually mastering the mark.”
For Wiley, music is also a major cultural signifier. “I think the music of African-Americans in America has contributed so much to the sense of improvisation, the way we sort of create ourselves on the fly. Black Americans have the aesthetic of nomads. How do you create a type of sound in an insecure time? I think that musical component is definitely there if you’e thinking about the type of work that I do where you’ve thinking about the more negative aspects of history but turning painting in on itself and trying to create something that lives.”
Adding to the continuum of community Sunday Night was Lauryn Hill’s pre-show act: EL, the award-winning Ghanaian record producer and rapper who opened the fish fry’s garden concert with indigenous Afrobeats. With Hill’s help, he hopes to cross over in the U.S. this year. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been listening to Lauryn Hill. I’m lucky to be under the wing right now. She’s teaching me so much about showmanship and music. I also want to make sure people realize that Africa, West Africa, Ghana, we’ve got the rhythm.”
As for Hill, she took the stage conjuring a live-action Mickalene Thomas painting and performed with the ferocity and artistry of one of Kehinde’s conquering queens. She thrilled partygoers with her new Fela Kuti-influenced songs, a few Sade and Nina Simone covers, ending her crowd-stunning set with the Fugees hits “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly,” along with the Bob Marley song “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and her solo hit “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
It may be hard to imagine how the widely collected Wiley, who recently had a hit retrospective show at Brooklyn Museum and whose works are regularly featured on the hit series Empire, could possibly top himself, but for him it’s all about digging deeper. “For the last few years, I’ve been spending most of my time on the continent of Africa. I’ve been working in a 20,000-square-foot studio and visiting artists facility where not only do I create my own work, but I invited international artists to engage with themselves and Africa and African artists. I’m excited about the chance to not only work with visual artists but with musicians to be able to create unique moments of interplay between African-American culture, African culture and the broader diaspora.”