Gallery owner Nicola Vassell considers the Caribbean context – 71Bait

Nicola Vassell is a veteran of Art Basel Miami Beach. Shortly after the Swiss Art Fair launched its American edition in 2002, she made her first pilgrimage as a junior member of the team at New York gallery Deitch Projects.

She’s been an annual visitor to the Florida fair ever since — while climbing the ranks in leading galleries, founding an art advisory and curatorial consultancy firm, and eventually launching her own gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood last year. “Coming full circle: I’ve grappled with that experience and now I’m back with my team on my own terms, showing work that we think will resonate,” says Vassell.

Her eponymous gallery on Tenth Avenue, the first gallery owned by a black woman to gain a foothold in Chelsea, opened in May 2021. The inaugural exhibition featured photographs by Ming Smith, which will be exhibited in February next year at the New York Museum of Modern Art, organized in partnership with The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Light Forces by Rita Letendre and Fred Eversley at the Nicola Vassell Gallery in 2022 © Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery

The Nicola Vassell Gallery has held 11 exhibitions since, most recently light forces, a cross-generational pairing of works by American sculptor Fred Eversley and the late Canadian painter Rita Letendre. “The gallery program is rooted in a sense of wonder, but first and foremost we offer a discourse that redefines the cusp of art’s history and future,” says Vassell. “We are as interested in science as we are in socio-political issues, but we also want art viewing experiences to be powerful and magical.”

The gallery presented itself for its opening round at Art Basel Miami Beach last year color vaultwhich highlighted the cosmic resonances in highly polished lens sculptures by Eversley – a former Nasa engineer – and irregular, gem-encrusted plaques by the up-and-coming Alteronce Gumby.

This year’s exhibition in the Nova sector of the fair, dedicated to works created over the past three years, features work by Trinidadian painter Che Lovelace and Barbados-born, Scottish-based interdisciplinary artist Alberta Whittle. The stand bears the title The Riddle of Arrival adapted from the 1987 novel by the late British Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad, a canonical figure of postcolonial studies.

Artist Alberta Whittle in a yellow dress lounging in a gallery on a chair
Barbados-born, Scottish-based artist Alberta Whittle makes cross-media works that depict collective caring as a counter to anti-blackness © Matthew A Williams

“As a woman from the West Indies, I feel drawn to the Caribbean every time I visit Miami; I can feel the magnetic power of the islands,” says Vassell. “Our program treads a path that looks at the Caribbean context in all its post-colonial, post-imperial sovereignty. I want to show work by artists who embody that spirit and show that certain notions of self and being that an entire citizenry have been taught to refute are indeed elemental and nourishing.”

Straw doll on a felt background with the words

Whittle’s We Remain with You (2022) © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassil Gallery/Adam Reich Photography

Whittle, representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale, makes cross-media works that frame collective caring as a counter to anti-blackness and community as a basis for exploring freedom. At the fair, Whittle will present two large-scale textile assemblages that explore Naipaul’s reflections on the relationship between land and history—“what stories lie beneath the ground, the roots, and the rocks,” says the artist. Evoking a profound understanding of history, these new figurative works also explore the transformative possibilities of masquerade and carnival.

“For me, the Caribbean carnival or mas is a special way of rethinking power because of its roots in colonization but also because of its basis in indigenous practices,” says Whittle. She notes that Lovelace’s paintings, which will appear alongside her assemblages, speak about carnival and color with a distinctly Caribbean palette.

Abstract leaf painting from four panels

Che Lovelace’s “Evening Leaves Turn into Ibis Flight” (2022) © Che Lovelace. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Nicola Vassil/Luis Corzo

The five Lovelace paintings, all of which will be exhibited in Miami beginning in 2022, each consist of four panels in a richly colored palette. The Trinidadian artist shows people, flora and fauna of the island: bathers and swimmers, palm and fruit trees, ibises in flight.

“My practice is rooted in a meditation and often a celebration of the bodies and activities of people here, which continually fascinates and inspires me, just as the physical and natural environment offers forms and configurations laden with an identity,” says Lovelace. “All considerations, social, political, aesthetic and otherwise, emanate from this position of ‘place.'” Together, Vassell argues, the works of Lovelace and Whittle grasp the psychology, mythology and everyday realities of life in and within the Caribbean Caribbean diaspora.

Abstract painting of a girl swimming underwater composed of four panels

Lovelace’s A Girl Holding Her Breath (2022) © Che Lovelace. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Nicola Vassil/Luis Corzo

Vassell himself was born in Jamaica and moved to New York at the age of 17. She was modeling, writing and studying art history and economics at New York University when she met art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who offered her an internship. She rose to director at Deitch Projects before moving to a directorship at mega gallery Pace, where she worked closely with Light and Space artist Robert Irwin and experienced the workings of a blue chip gallery. “It was exciting to find myself in this ecosystem,” says Vassell.

Seeking greater independence, Vassell founded Concept NV in 2014, which she describes as a curatorial laboratory, miniature think tank and art consultancy. In the same year she organized the exhibition Black eye, an exploration of contemporary Black identity featuring works by 30 artists including Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Concept NV quickly attracted notable clients such as the Dean Collection, an art collection and culture platform owned by American producer-rapper Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Daoud Dean) and singer-songwriter Alicia Keys.

Round abstract painting, mainly spots of different shades of yellow, green and blue

Julia Chiang’s Hold Your Breath and Close Your Eyes (2022) © Julia Chiang. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Nicola Vassil

Finally, opening her own gallery allowed her to consolidate all these diverse experiences. What happens after the end of the fair? The 2023 agenda includes international and national art fairs, including a solo booth at Frieze Los Angeles, and an ambitious program that begins with a solo show by Brooklyn-based artist Julia Chiang. “It’s a continuous dance, right?” Vassell talks about her ongoing journey. “You try, you fail, you get up, you fail again, then you totally succeed.”

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