Art Basel Miami Highlights 2021

A return to in-person art fairs in Miami


Art Basel Miami Highlights 2021

COVID-19 precautions taken

The first ‘In Real Life’ Art Basel Miami Miami Beach since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold kicked off at the start of December 2021 with a series of VIP events. 

Despite the Omicron sword of Damocles hanging overhead, guests (mostly masked and vaxxed) gamely visited Miami Beach’s Convention Center just blocks from the water for a peek at offerings from the world’s top galleries and artists. 


Art Basel Timed Tickets

While usually thronged with visitors, a timed-entry system kept the convention center feeling more quiet than usual.  Digital entry may have offered the prospect of a visit, but without a VIP pass, finding a specific hour that was not fully booked was often an exercise in frustration. 

This led to quiet alleyways and galleries for easy viewing of works with little to no overcrowding. 

Here are some of the artworks that caught my eye as I wandered. They are by artists whose work I was curious to see at Art Basel, as well as some that simply stood out. As always, there is more than I could possibly list but these are just a few “tastes” of works by artists at Art Basel Miami that I saw. 


Kehinde Wiley’s Abdoulaye Thiaw


Abdoulaye Thiaw by Kehinde Wiley, 2021

Kehinde Wiley’s work often is prominently featured at Art Basel, and this year was no exception. I love Wiley’s work because of his portrayal of average modern-day black people with the beauty and nuance of art historical works of the past. He does this is a way that is engaging, mysterious and playful. 

Abdoulaye Thiaw

In this piece, we see Abdoulaye Thiaw (2021), a young black man with a well-groomed mustache and beard perched on a wooden stool gazing out. The piece is oversized oval, making Thiaw life-size. Dressed in a floral shirt and yellow shorts, the elaborate background vegetation seems to merge with the figure. The background comes alive, wrapping around his left leg possessively. The fronds merely caress his leather sandal-clad foot propped on the stool, almost like hands showing the viewer that this man is where he belongs. 

Quote by Kehinde Wiley

“I always think of the background as a character within the picture. It’s demanding space in as much as the figure itself is demanding space. It becomes a kind of signifier of defiance, the desire to be present, the desire to be radically present.”

– Kehinde Wiley in conversation with National Portrait Gallery Director, Nicholas Cullinan (2017)

Who is Abdoulaye Thiaw?

A brief internet search revealed that there are multiple men named Abdoulaye Thiaw, including more than one on Instagram. Each seems to be from Francophone Africa, with at least one from Senegal, where Wiley’s Black Rock residency offers unparalleled opportunities to a highly selected group of artists. No one seems to be claiming to be the model, so the mystery of who Thiaw is (or which Thiaw it is) remains, so far. 


No banana this year? Maurizio Cattelan

Everyone was curious to know how Maurizio Cattelan could possibly follow up 2019’s banana uproar. That work captured the zeitgeist of the moment with its spontaneous and ephemeral nature, as well as its absurdity. Cattelan was back this year at Marian Goodman Gallery with taxidermied pigeons: more biologically stable than a banana. My jury is still out on what I think about it. 


Maurizio Cattelan's pigeons at Art Basel Miami Beach


Titus Kapar, Saints of De-Industry

Kapar’s mixed media work, Saints of De-Industry,  displayed at Gagosian continues his tradition of breaking out of traditional modes and methods of painting. Kapar is exceptionally talented at visual storytelling, forcing the viewer to consider what he has placed into (or onto) the canvas (check out another one of his works in Yale Art Gallery here). 


Kapar’s mixed media work, Saints of De-Industry,  displayed at Gagosian continues his tradition of breaking out of traditional modes and methods of painting. Kapar is exceptionally talented at visual storytelling, forcing the viewer to consider what he has placed into (or onto) the canvas (check out another one of his works in Yale Art Gallery here). 

In this work, at the upper left, a black helicopter hovers, attached to the distressed gold frame. Opposite, in the lower right, a full-body wooden cutout of an archer (holding a bow) dressed in a blue frock and multicolored leggings gazes over his shoulder. Within the frame, a bust of a man is covered in a thick black texture over his mouth and up to his nose. He gazes out into an unseen distance.  Lines radiating out of his head suggest he may be a hallowed figure. 

Behind him, a wintry landscape of a city appears (I would guess possibly Detroit). Flat-topped roofs and lots are covered in snow. The scene behind the figures is monochromatic yet speaks to urban life from afar. 

The work itself suggests an enigma, waiting for the viewer to unpack what they can of the work. 


Citational Ethics by Ja’Tovia Gary


There Is No Bad Luck In The World; Just White Folks by Ja’Tovia Gary Art Basel Miami Beach

Image: Citational Ethics (Toni Morrison, 1987), 2021.

This piece by Ja’Tovia Gary, from Paula Cooper Gallery, features the words “There Is no bad luck in the world, but white folks.” It is the second in an ongoing series where Gary takes quotes by black women and turns them into eye-catching signs. This quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved offers a new way of considering the words of her characters and their perspectives. It certainly got a lot of attention from the visitors – many of them the “white folks.” Perhaps the piece will give them pause. 


Kathleen Ryan, Bad Lemon (Glimmer)

Kathleen Ryan’s rotting fruit made of precious gems offer cognitive dissonance for the eyes. Beautifully rendered in spectacular hues, these fruits do provoke an initial feeling of disgust when one considers mold. Yet the closer inspection brings the awe of the careful color matching and craft required, particularly at a scale of 18.5 x 28.5 x 18.5.

Kathleen Ryan, Bad Lemon (Glimmer)
Kathleen Ryan, Bad Lemon (Glimmer)



Art Basel Miami Beach remains one of the top destinations for contemporary art every year. Measured by sales, this year was a strong one. While foot traffic may have been down, engagement and excitement were both high. The art basel miami satellite fairs were also back, with Art Miami, Untitled, SCOPE, and NADA amongst others. Next year should include the reemergence of 2021’s canceled Aqua. 

While not the pre-pandemic bacchanals of prior years, ABMB 2021 augurs well for the future. The sales and a steady flow of visitors, as well as compelling art, means that next year only looks brighter. 

And, with the advent of Art Basel Paris, taking over from FIAC in October 2022, the brand itself is only going to get stronger across the globe.

(Image below: Art Basel Miami Highlight: Viewers engaging with one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits)



Art Basel Miami Highlights 2021
Titus Kapar, Saints of De-Industry

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