IN VIVID BLACK AND BLUE, “Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism” (2015) by Kara Walker depicts a violent confrontation among four silhouetted figures. A police officer in combat gear hovers over the scene. A phallus hanging between his wide spread legs, he is kicking a male figure that is sucking the breast of a woman. Indeterminable, her expression may be sheer horror or elation. She is intertwined with a skull-headed figure, symbolizing death perhaps. He, too, is taking aggressive action toward the male figure, biting his leg.

Walker’s challenging images explore America’s troubling history and contemporary culture through the lens of race, gender, and power dynamics. The monumentally scaled painting is from a suite of works in which the artist considers primitivism, graffiti, and folk art—forms of representation traditionally and stereotypically considered to be “low” art.

Lot 7: KARA WALKER, “Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism,” 2015 (flashe, tempera, and watercolor on paper, 72 x 122 1/8 inches / 182.9 x 311 cm). | Estimate 200,000-300,000 British Pounds. Sold for 395,250 British Pounds / $500,861 (fees included). RECORD


The paintings were presented in Walker’s first exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery in London, “Kara Walker: Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First” (2015), a show of new works inspired by the Southern city where she grew up. Among the works on display, were “Four Idioms on Negro Art #1 Folk,” “Four Idioms on Negro Art #2 Graffiti,” and “Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism.”

Currently on view in “We the People: New Art from the Collection,” the Folk painting is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. In London, the Primitivism painting was offered for sale at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on June 25.

“Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism” sold for $503,549 (fees included)*, setting a new auction record for New York-based Walker. Her previous record held for eight years. Another work inspired by her adopted hometown, “The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire – A Reconstruction” (1995) sold for $422,550 at Sotheby’s New York in 2011.


Lot 2: TSCHABALALA SELF, “Out of Body,” 2015 (oil and fabric collage on canvas, 72 x 60 inches, 182.9 x 152.4 cm). | Estimate 40,000-60,000 British Pounds. Sold for 371,250 British Pounds / $470,448 (fees included). RECORD


WALKER’S PAINTING came early in the auction. Christie’s first summer evening contemporary sale since 2016 also featured a record-breaking painting by Tschabalala Self, a quickly rising talent who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Born in Harlem, Self splits her time between New York City and New Haven, Conn.

The second lot in the sale, Self’s “Out of Body” (2015) shattered expectations. The hammer price was five times the high estimate. With fees included, it rose to six times the high estimate ($470,448).

Self’s work confronts attitudes and stereotypes about the black female body. She creates imaginative characters with exaggerated forms and features. A colorful mixed-media painting, “Out of Body” centers around two female figures rendered in fabric and oil paint with two silhouetted figures behind them.

Interest in “Out of Body” was intense. When the lot came up, 19 bidders were registered by phone vying, for the work against bidders in the room, according to Artsy. Ultimately, “Out of Body” went to Jose Mugrabi, the New York-based collector and dealer whose family is said to own the largest cache of works by Andy Warhol and nearly unrivaled holdings by Jean Michel-Basquiat, heavily influencing the market for those artists.

Earlier this year in March, the sale of “Lilith” (2015) at Phillips London marked Self’s auction debut, and established her previous benchmark. Made the same year as “Out of Body,” the mixed-media painting sold for twice the estimate, reaching $163,875.


Lot 1: TSCHABALALA SELF, “Leda,” 2015 (oil, acrylic, Flashe, linen and dry leaf on canvas, 163 x 213.4 cm / 64 1/8 x 84 inches). | Estimate 40,000-60,000 British Pounds. Sold for 237,500 British Pounds / $300,960 (fees included)


Lot 2: LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE, “Leave A Brick Under The Maple,” 2015 (oil on canvas, 200 x 130 cm / 78 3/4 x 51 1/8 inches). | Estimate 250,000-450,000 British Pounds. Sold for 795,000 British Pounds / $1,007,424 (fees included)


THE RECORD-SETTING LOTS by Self and Walker are among a few others by black women—some of the most talented mid-career and up and coming painters working today—featured prominently at contemporary auctions in London last week. Works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nina Chanel Abney, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, opened sales, received advanced editorial promotion, and set artist records.

The first two lots offered at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on June 27, were by black female artists. Featuring 36 prime lots, the auction opened with a beautiful, honey-toned portrait by Yiadom-Boakye, the British painter, and another work by Self. “Leda” (2015) by Self, was the opening lot. It sold for $300,960, more than three times the estimate.

Yiadom-Boakye’s “Leave A Brick Under The Maple” features a tall, male subject. Glancing downward, he leans casually against a wall shelf. The painting exceeded its estimate, selling for ($1,007,424). The price is the second-highest at auction for a painting by Yiadom-Boakye, behind “The Hours Behind You” (2011), which sold at Sotheby’s New York for $1,575,000 in November 2017.

The record-setting lots by Tschabalala Self and Kara Walker are among a few others by black female painters featured prominently at contemporary auctions in London last week. Works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nina Chanel Abney, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, opened sales, received advanced editorial promotion, and set artist records.

Lot 2: NINA CHANEL ABNEY, “Untitled,” 2008 (acrylic on canvas, 111.8 x 182.9 cm / 44 x 72 inches). | Estimate 50,000-70,000 British Pounds. Sold for 75,000 British Pounds / $95,040 (fees included)


The next day, an untitled 2008 painting by Abney was the second lot in Phillips contemporary day sale (June 28). It sold for $95,040. Crowded with figures, the composition is centered around two subjects—a woman wearing hoop earring with her hair in a high-perched bun and a man in puffer jacket with a fur-lined hood and a green, Basquiat-style crown across emblazoned on his cap. Three bald figures wearing hospital scrubs appear to exist between realms with a sea of black and white ghost characters looming in the background.

The painting was made the year following the artist’s thesis show at Parsons School of Design in New York, where she presented one monumental painting, a diptych titled “Class of 2007.” Abney casts herself as a white prison guard alongside her art school classmates, who were all white. In the painting, the artist’s depicts them as black prisoners. Prominent collectors Donald and Mera Rubell purchased the painting and added it to “30 Americans,” an exhibition featuring works by three generations of African American artists, which has been traveling to museums throughout the United States for more than a decade.

Born in Chicago, New York-based Abney’s style has evolved over the years and is decidedly more graphic now—often invoking shapes and symbols, and rendered in bold colors. Her work responds to the fast pace of the current media-obsessed, tech-driven moment and addresses homophobia and racial and political issues.


Lot 1: NINA CHANEL ABNEY, “Paradise Found,” 2009 (acrylic on canvas, 180 by 176 cm / 70 7/8 x 69 1/4 inches). | Estimate 50,000-70,000 British Pounds. Sold for 225,000 British Pounds / $285,335 (fees included). RECORD


Abney’s “Paradise Found” opened Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction on June 27, starting the sale off with a record-breaker. The 2009 painting sold for about three times the estimate, soaring to $285,120.

There are often multiple narratives in Abney’s paintings. She has said she may begin a painting with a particular topic in mind, but the story is not predetermined. Nothing is too literal or definitive. She leaves it to the viewer to decide what her paintings are about.

“Paradise Found” looks like it is about a racially diverse group being held up in a pair of hot tubs. The aggressor is not shown. The group, mostly white in the foreground, looks beyond the canvas at the source of their fear with their hands raised above their head. Scott and his buddy with the parrot on his head, look in the same direction but have no overt reaction. There is a volleyball floating in the water and, interestingly, toy ducks. The reference may be an indication that the people in the hot tubs are sitting ducks. Or, maybe the scene is purely recreational and their hands are raised awaiting another incoming volleyball.

Abney included “Paradise Found” in “Go Berzerker” at 2010 exhibition in London. In an interview with Live Unchained, Abney said the works in the show “explore introspection and the idea of fighting against and/or accepting the things one might find when looking inside oneself. With that body of work I was also interested in exploring the collision of instinct and intuition, as well as the power in the ability to harness both.”


Lot 7: TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA, “Compound Leaf,” 2017 (pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, sheet: 127.6 x 191.8 cm / 50 1/4 x 75 1/2 inches). | Estimate 100,000-150,000 British Pounds. Sold for 471,000 British Pounds / $596,851 (fees included). RECORD


A self-portrait, “Compound Leaf” (2017) by Ojih Odutola sold for nearly four times the high estimate, reaching $596,851, a new artist record. The drawing situates the artist in a brightly lit space. She’s centered herself between a set of windows and a wall hung with two partially obscured, framed works of art. A leaf is tattooed on her neck.

Born in Ife, Nigeria, Ojih Odutola was raised in Alabama. Today she lives and works in New York, where “Compound Leaf” was featured in “For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn” (2018-19), a three-artist show at the Drawing Center. A detail of the record-setting drawing is featured on the cover of the catalog for the exhibition.

Ojih Odutola’s previous record was established weeks ago, when “Selective Histories” sold for $329,475 at Sotheby’s London in May.

THE NOTABLE RESULTS achieved by these works comes in advance of major exhibitions in London for Walker and Yiadom-Boakye. Coming soon, Walker is the latest artist selected for the Tate Modern’s annual Hyundai Commission in Turbin Hall. The installation debuts Oct. 2. At Tate Britain, the first major survey of Yiadom-Boakye opens in May 2020. Meanwhile, “MOOD,” the Studio Museum in Harlem artist-in-residence exhibition featuring Self, recently opened at MoMA PS1 and is on view through Sept. 8. CT


* Fees included in all sales prices


FIND MORE about how Swizz Beatz is helping emerging artists keep all the proceeds from art fair sales and proposing a way collectors can ensure artists get a cut when their work is re-sold at auction or through a gallery


“The Ecstasy of St. Kara: Kara Walker” accompanied an exhibition of new works—influenced in part by Walker’s residency at the American Academy in Rome—presented at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Kara Walker: Figa” was published in May. “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher” documents her New Museum exhibition in New York. Published in 2014, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye” surveyed her career to date. More recently, her first monograph, also titled, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye” is rife with images of her captivating portraits. “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” accompanies the artist’s 10-year traveling survey organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola” documents the exhibition presented at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. “Tschabalala Self” complements the artist’s first UK exhibition at Parasol Unit in London.


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