This was Issa Rae's first Art Basel.
Sitting in a low-lit private lounge of Miami's The Villa Casa Casuarina — formerly know as the Versace mansion, once home to the iconic designer, Gianni Versace — we both tried to figure out the correct way to pronounce "basel."
"I'm like 'basil,'" Rae said. "Someone told me it's 'ba-sell-e.' They even have me correcting somebody like, [scoffs] 'Girl, this ba-sell-e.'"
However it's spelled, the entire experience is a bit surreal. After a year of gigantic wins with a hit HBO series, appearance in JAY-Z's "Moonlight" video, a CoverGirl deal and a role in George Tillman Jr.'s upcoming film The Hate U Give, she was in great spirits. Rae and her three girlfriends who came along for the trip, looked like four brown bombshells in a room filled with personnel buzzing about to make sure the 32-year-old had everything she needed.
Rae was in town to host Bombay Sapphire's Eighth Annual Artisan Series, a program that supports and awards visual artists from across North America. This year, 8,000 submissions were narrowed down to 14 regional and two online winners who were present that night for the party —and Rae was excited to represent such a diverse group. Out of the 16 artists, three were Black women, one an abstract painter who won through online votes.
"My aunt was a visual artist, and she would always encourage us to express ourselves creatively," Rae told ESSENCE. "She would always give us canvases or blank pads, and coloring pencils and paint. I just thought it was cool. She worked for the Pacific Hill, the phone company, and she was still doing her art. And then she founded an entire organization, a collective, that still exists today for Black artists."
"I didn't realize until my adulthood, like, 'Oh my gosh. I got so much from her.'"
The million-dollar villa was transformed into an decadent oasis of blue lights with artwork of the finalists hung up on walls built in the carefully manicured courtyards. Organic to the Versace gold emblems, tufted velvet chairs and hand-painted Spanish Renaissance murals on the ceilings —all giving a 70's Studio 54 vibe— the DJ played disco tunes throughout the night.
It was a celebration, but it also was a moment to recognize how art —from television and film to paint canvases— is giving platforms to Black women to tell their honest stories.
"This has been my golden moment," said Dawn L. Stringer, the former corrections officer turned painter who won the Artisan program's online voting poll.
"This is my solo journey and none of my non-art friends understand why I want to sit at home on Friday night and paint. So this is so rewarding just being in this whole ambience, and art really is food for my soul at this point. You know what I mean? And it really has helped me through a very, very, very difficult time. I consider my art a break from the real world."
D. Lammie-Hanson, who used the classic silverpoint technique for her piece Multi-Faced Divina, has been painting since she was five years old.
"There's so many things in life that always try and restrict our happiness, our joy," she said about her sketching of a woman divided by boxes. "What I like to do is turn paint into beauty and brilliance. That's my joy. Somebody suffering? It's quite easy to turn it around. We just have to flip the switch, but we gotta figure out what the switch is."
In addition to the party on Friday, the artists' work was displayed at SCOPE Miami Beach, an exhibit during Art Basel that showcases pieces from high-end galleries. Considering travel, storage and setup the cost of participating in this can be in the thousands —but for these emerging artists, it was free.
"What moves me is, selfishly, if I see something, and it resonates with me, or if it draws something in me, or it ... You know how sometimes you'll recognize the smell, and you'll be like, 'Oh, my gosh. That smell reminds me of this.' If I look at a piece of art, and it does that for me, then I have to have it, or I have to learn more about it," Rae said.
"That's exactly what I'm trying to in my work with Black artists' — to support, people of color and have a place for them to showcase their work. That's also what drew me to this event. This is an opportunity to support American artists and give them a platform to showcase. Because... who else can do it?"