The Rhine Births Yet Another Baby : Photo Basel
June 17 - 20, 2015
Couple of decades ago the grandees of Switzerland's third largest city, Basel, began to claim for their town the cachet, "Cultural capital of Switzerland" - to the chagrin of Bern, the Federal seat, Geneva the international hub, and Zurich the bankers' cum commercial powerhouse. They harrumphed at the very idea that an industrial pile up on their northern frontier and whose sky is constantly scarred by billowing smoke from factories would even know how to spell "culture."
Look who is laughing now! Today, no objective outsider can deny Basel has won its self-arrogated title, fair and square. No other Swiss city comes close to the number of cultural hardware Basel deploys, via an array of heritage sites and seasonal events; from art, architecture, design and commercial fairs, to music, theatre and comedy festivals, to a hilarious military tattoo, a unique 3-country marathon pounding the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland, to the fact that Basel is Roger Federer's hometown. Not to mention, Basel hosts the largest and most gruesome of the blood-curdling carnivals the Swiss love. No other Swiss town is home to as many public and private art collections, housed in world class museums – thanks to the deep pockets and gratitude of scions of some of the city's industries. Basel, population 200,000 and sprawling over loops on the Rhine, is (hint-hint) seat of two of the world's top five pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Roche. Shall we say more?
The latest addition to Basel's cachet is Photo Basel. It debuted in mid June, the brainchild of Sven Eisenhut, an energetic, former mid-level manager in the hotel industry who resigned his job in order "to pursue his "vision." That Sven and business partner Samuel timed the launch of Photo Basel to coincide with Art Basel, the world's most mega, most prestigious contemporary art and design happening is no brainer - a masterstroke nonetheless.
Mid June is when every major art dealer, agent, collector, museum director, curator and art publisher worth his/her salt come into town, to do business, network, join in the numerous salon conversations, or have fun in and outside the Messeplatz, Art Basel's citadel. Brad Pitt, Leonardo di Caprio, Kanye West are the latest Americanos to be bitten by the Basel art thronging bug.
Methinks, Photo Basel has legs, using as indicator the 20 international galleries who paid top dollar for one of Sven's premium booths; not bad for an inaugural edition in a world groaning under the weight of contemporary art and photo fairs.
Those who signed up include Amanasalto of Japan, who deals the works of Imogen Cunningham, Tadao Andao, Sakiko Nomura, Shomei Tomatsu and the baddest of the Japanese bad boys, Nobuyoshi Araki. So did Carlos Caamano of Lima, Cubus-M of Berlin, Grundemark-Nilsson of Berlin-Stockholm, Amsterdam's Kahman Gallery, Milan's MC2, PH Neutron of Pietrasanta, Stephen Cohen of Los Angeles, as well as, Zurich's Bildhalle of Mirjam Cavegn and Stieglitz19 of Belgium, who specializes in young photographers and Chinese photography. Galerie Esther Woerdehoff of Paris showcased emergent photo-artists under 40 years. Her Danish-Swiss duo PutPut created the "popsicle" art piece adopted by Photo Basel as its key visual for 2015.
In the proverbial wow factor (or loud factor?), I think Degen Gallery of Basel ate the cake. While it specializes in young photographers from Brazil, Russia, Serbia and Spain, owner Christian Degen brought only the work of Alexander Palacio, a local boy made good on the international catwalk and studio photography stage. Palacio pushes the envelope in digitally-assisted artwork as only few can. His in your face naked black female models wearing ram horns and strapped onto a crucifix aren't for those who wear their religion on their sleeve. Christian's sartorial get-ups are artwork in themselves. You'll be hard pressed to meet a Swiss man with a fashion sense as beautifully loud as Christian's. (see pix).
However, my best booth was Baudoin Lebon of Paris which showcased, exclusively, the delectable American Ayana V. Jackson. I may be biased here, for I am in love with Ayana although she doesn't know it. A grand daughter of famous pan-Africanists from New Jersey, Ayana is not only the most beautiful woman on planet earth, barring my mother and the mother of my two boys, she's also one of the bravest creators in the art & message platform. Most of her work is based on her body, her naked body, that is. Talk about self-engaged conceptualization in artistry, Ayana titled her latest series Archival Impulse & Poverty Pornography. She models and photographs herself in a restaging of archival images from the scars of Africa's colonial past, from slavery, the Negro on American plantations, from ever present violence and dehumanization... Ditto, images of neo-colonialism, wars and famine are staged by Ayana with haunting, pulsating, pathos; and an actualized, meaningful relevance. Halloo, Marina Abramovic!
My favourite from Ayana will always be that of her dead body dangling from a lynch mob's noose in a winterized plantation in the American south. Beyond words. Or, her re-enactment of the Vietnam war, the blowing out of the brains of a handcuffed Vietcon prisoner in a busy Saigon street by police general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, playing prosecutor, judge and executioner.
Who for Seconds?
"Oh, no!" Sven exclaimed with characteristic Swiss modesty when I asked if he sees Photo Basel taking on Europe's big leaguers, Photo Paris and Photo Amsterdam, or North America's New York Photo Show. "We don't want to be that huge. We want to create a select niche, a cutting edge photography fair, and to attract the world's finest talents, their agents and publishers, to come and do business, in an unrushed, soothing surrounding."
Indeed, Sven and Samuel chose their location well, the cavernous skylit Ackermannshof, which is part of the rambling Old City complex, in St Johanns-Vorstadt, away from the madding crowds of Art Basel's Messeplatz. A stone throw below is a broad sweep of the somnambulating Rhine, its banks dotted with cafés and dolce farniente bars. "In time, we see booths right inside these cafés – art and leisure, leisure and art. The Rhine will join us in the fun!" Sven enthused.
"Business hasn't been that good," Nina Grundemark of Grundemark-Nilsson Gallery, said. "That's to be expected for a first edition of a fresh brand," she added. Will she return for seconds, come June 2016? Nina smiled, sweetly, noncommittal, reflective.
Sven and Samuel, you have a ton of work to do, and it's not cut out for you. Not yet.
Osei G Kofi, Basel, June 2015