Amid a Feverish Market for Her Prismatic Paintings, Japanese Art Dynamo Etsu Egami Is Keeping a Cool Head

It’s only a few weeks into 2023, but Etsu Egami can already confirm that it has been a great year.

The 28-year-old artist just returned home to Chiba, Japan, after her sold-out solo exhibition soft-opened Whitestone Gallery’s new space in Singapore during the city’s art week; her works on show at the Taiwanese gallery’s booth at the recent ART SG also found eager buyers. She is now back in her studio in her hometown, busy preparing for a series of upcoming museum projects and showcases locally and abroad. Indeed, Egami is already looking at a full schedule in the coming weeks and months, and her eyes are set on the global stage.

“I want more Japanese artists, woman artists, and Asian artists to be seen in the international art world,” Egami said of her strong motivation to go global, speaking to Midnight Publishing Group News via a video call from her studio.

While there have been a lot of great artists from Japan and Asia throughout history, she noted, the number of them known internationally remains small. Having featured in exhibitions for nearly a decade, and reaching notable acclaim—including a spot on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list in 2021—Egami’s fierce determination to develop a career outside of Japan “is only natural.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami at artist talk with curator Tan Siuli at the opening of her solo show at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

Japan’s Ascendant Star

By the sounds of things (and with a look at the data), going global is going to be a very achievable new year’s resolution—her hard work is already paying off. Egami’s paintings, created with thick lines of colorful brushstrokes, have amassed a solid following since her debut in 2015; she has shown paintings in major art cities from Paris and New York to Seoul, Beijing, and Taipei.

Prices for her paintings floating in the secondary market have skyrocketed since 2021, making her one of the art market’s fastest-rising stars from Asia, widely recognized as a key artist of the third-generation postwar Japanese art. Her work has already entered the collection of institutions internationally, including CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and E-Land Foundation in Seoul.

But Egami’s rise in the market also means that she has also become a target of flippers—a fact that upsets the artist. According to data from the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database, most of her top 10 auction records were for works that had a three-year hold or less, including her current record, which stands at HK$2.9 million ($366,921; all sale prices include fees), for a 2021 diptych sold at Holly’s International (HK) Auctions’s sale in May of last year. This was followed by the sale of painting Rainbow-2022-t-10 at a Holly’s Hong Kong auction in November 2022. The work, which achieved HK$1.3 million ($168,931), had been exhibited at Tang Contemporary’s Seoul space only a few months prior. On Saturday, January 28, Japan’s SBI Art Auction will put a small 2021 painting up for sale. (The auction house gave the work a rather low-seeming presale estimate of ¥700,000 to ¥1.3 million ($5,100 to $9,400), but SBI appears to have a track record of holding their estimates to an approachable level.)

“[My artworks] are like my children, so I hope the work can stay with people for much longer,” Egami said when asked about how this heated secondary market affects her. She is working with her galleries to try to keep things under control: they have imposed a five-year non-selling agreement, and are extremely carefully to weed out uncommitted collectors.

She is grateful for the attention, though, and hopes that it is sustainable. “I really appreciate that people love my work and collecting it,” she said. “I hope people can see the messages in my work, why I make these works, and the stories behind them. I also hope more people can spend time with my work, allow their imagination to flourish, and show my work rather than just keep them in the storage. I want people to focus on my art.”

Etsu Egami Whitestone

Etsu Egami’s works at Whitestone Gallery’s booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

International Influence

To understand Egami’s art, one must trace her practice back to her high-school days. Growing up about 25 miles east of the center of Tokyo, in 2008, she experienced a transformational change when she was exposed to Chinese contemporary art during the Beijing Olympics.

“It was a big shock to the Japanese art scene,” recalled Egami of the televised Olympics, which were hugely popular in Japan. It widened her view—she had grown up loving the work of Japanese modern painters such as Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara. But, for a long time, she felt that there has been a gap between the Japanese pre- and postwar art, and the exposure to Chinese contemporary art was a light-bulb moment. “It seemed to bridge this gap,” she said.

She studied oil painting in China, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, before eventually completing her MFA there in 2019, studying under Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, one of the key Chinese contemporary artists who was among the art market darlings about a decade ago when the genre was the most highly sought after from east Asia.

When she first studied abroad (in China, but also in Germany), she noted that experiences of culture shock and the miscommunications of being a foreigner deeply impacted her, especially those that went beyond words. Non-erbal cultural cues and subtexts puzzled her the most. “I realized that it was not a problem of language,” she noted. “Language is a tool of communication, but at the same time, it’s also the barrier.”

This miscommunication became a major source of inspiration in her paintings. Her style further evolved during a period spent in New York in 2020, as part of a Japanese governmental residency for outstanding artists. During those months, she witnessed the turbulent lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of targeted attacks against Asians.

These revelations brought about her ongoing “Rainbow” series. Some of the works from this series have sold well at auctions, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database records. “The importance of diversity and coexistence gave me the inspiration of the rainbow,” she said. “They are lines that do not mix with each other, but they are in various colors running parallel to each other. This is my single dream and hope, and has become my painting language.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami, Rainbow-2022-W-42, on show at the artist’s solo exhibition “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay” at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

A Big New Year

This year will likely be a turning point. For one, a striking monumental diptych from her recent Singapore show with a title inspired by Japanese classical text Hōjōki, has been acquired by a foundation that is building a yet-to-be-announced private museum in Singapore. The work is a visual ode to honor the primitive nature and spirituality of feminine power through the artist’s signature brushstrokes in a warm color palette.

“I’m very happy about this,” the artist said of the major acquisition, adding that she also met a lot of collectors from the region during her time there, including those from Malaysia and Indonesia. “It’s nice that my work can be placed in a collection that will be open to the public,” she added.

And even though it is largely private buyers chasing her paintings, Egami’s work will nevertheless reach a wider audience in the coming year. The painting Rainbow-2021-T-1—the work that set her auction record—is included in the third edition of the China Xinjiang International Art Biennial, which opened earlier this month. She is also working to expand on her medium, and plans to spend a residency creating a site-specific audio-visual installation for a group show set to open in late February at the Museum of Modern Art in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. For this project, the artist researched the history of Daruma dolls, modeled after a Buddhist monk who was widely known as the founder of Zen Buddhism.

Also in the pipeline are institutional exhibitions, one planned for London during Frieze week next fall, and another at a yet-to-be-announced museum in Shanghai; at both, she plans to stretch beyond painting, including experiments with photography, sound, and sculpture. Her work will also make a fair presence at Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Geneva, both with Tang Contemporary, according to the artist.

But Egami is happy to let her representatives take care of sales while she delves deeper into her art. “The galleries will be handling the market side of things so that I can focus on my work that questions about society or my feelings,” Egami said. “I want to try something new.”

Etsu Egami

Installation view of “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay,” solo exhibition of Etsu Egami at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the artist.

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What I Buy and Why: Miami’s Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs on Their Artist-Featured Dinner Parties and Their Wall of Dog Paintings

Art is at the heart of the relationship for Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. The couple got married 15 years ago on their shared birthday, March 13, and celebrate their anniversary each year by buying a new work for their collection.

There is also their business, Thomas Fuchs Creative, which works with skilled artisans to help bring their high-end handmade design objects to a broader audience. Fuchs, a graduate of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., is the creative director, and Mahtani, the former global brand director of Rémy Martin, is the director of public relations.

But where their passion for art really shines is during Miami Art Week, when they host their annual Tavolo Dinner Series, inviting a local artist they love to completely make over their apartment to create an immersive art installation.

Mahtani had experience hosting events with artists at Rémy Martin—albeit with the power of a major company behind him—and started the series as a way of connecting to the local art scene after the couple moved to Miami five years ago.

Capucine Safir, for Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs Creative's Tavolo Art Dinner Series. Photo by Nestor Sandoval.

Capucine Safir, for Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs Creative’s Tavolo Art Dinner Series. Photo by Nestor Sandoval.

Past artists have included Tom Criswell, Tony Vazquez-Figueroa, and Aidan Marak. For a dinner with Frida Baranek, who had recently done a photography project on a zero-gravity flight, Mahtani even created a fanciful tablescape with melamine plates floating atop waves of industrial chicken wire.

We spoke to Mahtani about what attracts them to a work of art, and how they live with each work in their collection.

Tony Vazquez, <em> Black Mirror V</em> in the bedroom of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Josue Acosta.

Tony Vazquez, Black Mirror V, in the bedroom of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Josue Acosta.

What was your first purchase?

Our first joint purchase was made in Paris fifteen years ago. We were in a taxi speeding to the airport when we were stuck in traffic and looked to our right and saw a HUGE cow staring at us from a gallery window. We stopped the taxi immediately and rushed into the gallery and bought the cow by the artist Wang Zhiwu!!! I felt like we literally were in a scene out of a movie. We both got to the airplane gate and we could not believe what we had just done.

What was your most recent purchase?

In 2020, for our birthdays, we purchased a collage of a robot entitled Madness Will Out by Addie Herder. We were in lockdown and Thomas was surfing the web and fell in love with her collage. Flash forward to 2023, and the artist is having a solo show at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Art Museum in Miami. Thomas sits on the board of the museum, and she will be the featured artist for our Tavolo Dinner Series in December.

Addie Herder, <em>Madness Will Out</em>. Photo by Mateo Serna Zapata.

Addie Herder, Madness Will Out. Photo by Mateo Serna Zapata.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

More Lalanne. We are huge fans of the couple François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne and own a piece gifted to me by my parents. On a trip to France, my mother was so taken by the birds that my father bought her one. That bird ended up being a Lalanne sculpture, which has now taken flight and landed ever so gently up on a perch in our bar area.

Black Mirror V by Tony Vazquez-Figueroa sits above our bed, however the one I pine after is his large canvas works. They are a play on the petrol from Venezuela that is in abundance, but ironically the locals can’t benefit from their own country’s rich resources.

Bernard Buffet, <em>Bugs</em>, in the dining room of Thomas Fuchs and Michou Mahtani. Photo by Josue Acosta.

Bernard Buffet, Bugs, in the dining room of Thomas Fuchs and Michou Mahtani. Photo by Josue Acosta.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

Bernard Buffet. Both Thomas and I are huge fans of Buffet, who we discovered on one of our many sojourns to Paris. He had a rich personal history having been the ex-boyfriend of both Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. We recognized the allure both designers saw in a young Bernard Buffet—apart from his matinee idol features. We acquired the piece we have from his “Bug” series at a gallery in Paris which now frames our dining room. Thomas was even inspired by the piece to create our bug table linen collection.

But for us, it’s more the journey to discovery and how we acquire the piece that holds the value for us. We have a wall of dog paintings that range from exquisite valuable pieces to flea market finds that continually bring a smile to our face every time we walk by them.

Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs's "Dog Wall." Photo by Carlos Urdantea.

Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs’s dog wall. Photo by Carlos Urdantea.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

We absolutely love living in Miami. With Art Basel Miami we are surrounded by local and international art and artists, but the truth is we acquire most of our artwork when we travel. In all the countries we travel to for manufacturing our collections—India, Italy, Egypt, France—our passion for discovery and finding new artists, new galleries, and new ideas is what feeds our souls. More times than not, it ends up in us bringing home a piece of art.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

No. All our artwork, whether sculpture or painting, is so highly personal to us. The art is not just an investment, but also an emotional transaction. Everything we’ve bought has meaning for Thomas and I both, so we’ve yet to regret or resell anything we have purchased.

A work by an unknown Brazilian artist in the living room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Michael Stavaridis.

A work by an unknown Brazilian artist in the living room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Michael Stavaridis.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa?

Our living room is a mix. There’s a sculpture from artist Sharon Berebichez, a set of floral paintings by our friend and renowned teacher and artist Mary Beth Mckenzie, and the large-scale showstopper of a piece was gifted to Thomas over twenty years ago. We only know it was done by a Brazilian artist. Surrounded by windows, the reflection of light at different times of day illuminates the depth and dimension of the painting. It’s a fan favorite of all our guests.

A Mary Beth McKenzie painting in the living room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Michael Stavaridis.

A Mary Beth McKenzie painting in the living room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs. Photo by Michael Stavaridis.

What about in your bathroom?

We have a modern photograph by the photographer Mary Beth Koeth of the legendary WNBA player and Olympian, Lisa Leslie. This photograph was initially for an ESPN “Legends of Basketball” exhibition, and they wanted a yellow background to make it bright. Mary Beth gifted this to us a few years ago and we love it in the bathroom hanging next to our collection of Rosenthal plates by Danish artist Bjørn Wiinblad.

Mary Beth Koeth, <em>Lisa Leslie</em>. Collection of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs.

Mary Beth Koeth, Lisa Leslie. Collection of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

Where do I start? A huge 180-pound life-size Han Dynasty ceramic dog sits on a pedestal in our dining room overlooking our table. While on a manufacturing trip in Hong Kong, Thomas toured the infamous Hollywood Road antique neighborhood, and came across this dog that he fell in love with. Being dog lovers, we resonate with any artwork featuring dogs. After our wall of dog portraits, this was a natural progression for us to acquire the dog sculpture. It’s impractical because of its size and weight—it’s almost like having a Great Dane living in our dining room!

A Han Dynasty dog sculpture in the dining room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs.

A Han Dynasty dog sculpture in the dining room of Michou Mahtani and Thomas Fuchs.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

Katherine Bernhardt. I am such a big fan of her style. I remember seeing a huge Pink Panther I liked for under $10,000 a few years ago, now her work sells for upwards of $150,000. My love for the Pink Panther can be traced back to my childhood. My mother actually painted my bathroom grey and pink and made a Pink Panther-themed bathroom. So naturally, I live in daily regret for not buying it when we had the chance.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

Would we really steal? If no one was looking…maybe! First on the list would be a piece by Morris Louis, inventor of the Color Field movement. We love Morris Louis’s work because it is classic but yet so modern. What could look to the naked eye as simple has a depth and a current that moves one’s soul. Is that too deep and poetic?

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A Minnesota University Is Under Fire for Dismissing an Art History Professor Who Showed Medieval Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad

In a controversial move, an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, has lost her job after showing her class Medieval paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the Islamic religion.

The school’s decision not to renew the professor’s contract for the current semester has sparked debates over free speech, including a petition in support of the teacher, signed by at least 2,500 scholars and students of Islamic studies and art history, and a condemnation from PEN America of the “egregious violation” of academic freedom.

Though it is not mentioned in the Koran, many Muslims believe it is idolatrous to show Muhammad’s face. Most mosques instead are decorated with geometric designs and calligraphy featuring passages from the Koran, and Islamic figurative art is now rare.

But there is also a tradition of painting Muhammad, often in miniature, especially in Persia, Turkey, and India. Examples can be found in the collections of museums such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It was a selection of two of those artworks shown to the class that cost the professor her job.

Mustafa ibn Vali, illustration of Muhammad in <em>The Life of the Prophet (Siyer-i nebi)</em>, ca. 1594–95. Collection of the Chester Beatty Library.

Mustafa ibn Vali, illustration of Muhammad in The Life of the Prophet (Siyer-i nebi), ca. 1594–95. Collection of the Chester Beatty Library.

The teacher, identified by the Art Newspaper as Erika Lopez Prater, is said to have displayed the images during on online lecture on October 6, 2022. There was a two-minute content warning prior to the artworks’ appearance, to allow students to opt out of viewing the potentially offensive imagery should they feel it was against their faith.

“I am showing you this image for a reason,” Prater said before changing the slide, as reported by the university’s student paper, the Oracle. “And that is that there is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”

One of the artworks was an illustration of the archangel Gabriel delivering his revelations to Muhammad from a 14th-century manuscript by Rashīd al-Dīn called the Compendium of Chronicles, while the other was a 16th-century work by Mustafa ibn Vali showing the prophet with a veil and halo.

Aram Wedatalla, a student in the class and the president of the university’s Muslim Student Association, complained to the professor afterward. Prater apologized in an email, but Wedatalla elevated the issue to university administrators, arguing that the lesson was disrespectful to Muslim students.

In response, the dean of students sent an email to the student body condemning the incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”

The prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira, page from a Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript (ca. 1725). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, gift of George Hopper Fitch.

The prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira, page from a Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript (ca. 1725). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, gift of George Hopper Fitch.

On December 6, two articles on the incident were published in the Oracle—one a news report in which the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence David Everett said that “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.”

“My perspective and actions have been lamentably mischaracterized, my opportunities for due process have been thwarted, and Dr. Everett’s all-employee email accusation that ‘undeniably… Islamophobic’ actions undertaken in my class on Oct. 6 have been misapplied,” Prater told the student paper.

The other Oracle article was a letter to the editor from Mark Berkson, the university’s department of religion chair and a professor of Asian religions, Islam, and comparative religion.

“In the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia,” he wrote. “Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate.”

The Oracle editorial board removed the article from its website just two days after its publication. (Berkson’s text is currently available on the libertarian magazine Reason, along with both emails from administrators to the university community.)

The Islamic prophet Muhammad (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the <em>Siyer-i Nebi</em>. Collection of the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

The Islamic prophet Muhammad (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi. Collection of the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

“Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm,” the Oracle wrote in explanation of the decision. “Our publication will not participate in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate.”

The following day, a second university-wide email went out, from Everett and university president Fayneese Miller. It said that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

“Displaying an image of Muhammad may similarly be deeply offensive to some, but because it was pedagogically relevant to the course at issue, it is protected by basic tenets of academic freedom,” Sabrina Conza, the program officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), countered in an open letter to Miller, expressing the organization’s concern about the incident and calling for Prater to be reinstated.

The university had held a 33-person meeting about the incident on November 10, with Everett and other administrators such as the dean of students, the interim provost, the assistant director of social justice programs, and the university chaplain among those in attendance, as well as a number of students.

“Of all of the conversations that were held between the MSA and the administration about what to do about the situation, the faculty member was excluded and not a single scholarly voice was ever included,” Berkson told Hyperallergic. “So nobody in the room actually knew anything about these images.”

Persian miniature 1550 AD depicting the Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into Heaven, a journey known as the Miraj. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

Persian miniature 1550 AD depicting the Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into Heaven, a journey known as the Miraj. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

“These images are a part of Islamic artistic tradition, and it is very important for us to appreciate and study. That’s what art historians do,” Berkson added. “If specific students don’t want to look at it, that is an important right. I think we should have a protocol to ensure that no student’s religious prohibitions are violated. But their prohibition cannot be imposed on everyone else.”

Representatives for Hamline University did not respond to a request for comment.

To address concerns among the university’s Muslim community, Hamline reportedly invited Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the school to lead a conversation about Islamophobia in December.

“Many of the Muslim students on campus, after they heard of this incident, it impacted them. It impacted their grades, it impacted them finishing off the semester. They obviously were hurt. At the same time, they’re appreciative of the institution doing the right thing,” Hussein told Twin Cities Pioneer Press last month. “For us Muslims, it is blasphemy.”

News of the professor’s termination was first reported outside the university in New Lines Magazine by Christiane Gruber, an art historian who specializes in depictions of Muhammad.

The Prophet Muhammad and his companions advancing on Mecca, attended by the angels Gabriel, Michael, Israfil and Azrail, from Siyer-i Nebi: The Life of the Prophet (1595).

The Prophet Muhammad and his companions advancing on Mecca, attended by the angels Gabriel, Michael, Israfil and Azrail, from Siyer-i Nebi: The Life of the Prophet (1595).

“Hamline administrators have labeled this corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, as hateful, intolerant, and Islamophobic. And yet the visual evidence proves contrary: The images were made, almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran,” Gruber wrote.

“Through conflation or confusion, Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject that happens to coincide with the age-old Western cliche that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet,” she added, noting that this “muzzles all other voices while potentially endangering rare and precious works of Islamic art.”

“If these reports are accurate, Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said in a statement.

“Not only is an art history professor well within their rights to show medieval and Renaissance Islamic artworks in class,” he added, “but the professor apparently took added care to create a positive pedagogical experience for students—placing the images in historical context, allowing students to opt out of viewing them, and thoughtfully exploring the history and diversity of Islamic art and thought.”

The ascension of the prophet Muhammad depicted in the Miraj Nameh manuscript (1436).

The ascension of the prophet Muhammad depicted in the Miraj Nameh manuscript (1436).

The Academic Freedom Alliance also published a letter in support of Prater, calling for her immediate reinstatement.

“If a professor of art history cannot show college students significant works of art for fear that offended students or members of the community could get that professor fired for doing so, then there simply is no serious commitment to academic freedom at that institution—and indeed no serious commitment to higher education,” Keith Whittington, a member of the alliance’s academic committee and a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote in the letter.

In another email to the Hamline community on December 31, the university president continued to defend the decision not to renew Prater’s contract.

“It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of our classrooms,” Miller wrote, according to Pioneer Press. “It is also important that we clarify that the adjunct instructor was teaching for the first time at Hamline, received an appointment letter for the fall semester, and taught the course until the end of the term.”

In response, FIRE filed a complaint with the Higher Learning Commission on January 4, asking that the organization hold the university accountable for violating accreditation standards regarding academic freedom.

“We gave Hamline plenty of time to reverse course, but it’s clear they’re not planning to deliver on their academic freedom promises,” FIRE attorney Alex Morey, who wrote the complaint, said in a statement.

“Hamline has no right to dismiss an art history instructor for teaching art history,” Conza added. “Hamline clearly doesn’t understand what academic freedom means, even though it explicitly promises faculty this core right.”

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A Gallery Owner Says He Destroyed Six Paintings Over a Controversy Regarding Their Depiction of Native American Symbols

A New York gallery has taken down an exhibition of paintings—which the gallery owner says he will now destroy—after a controversy erupted over an artist’s use of culturally sensitive symbols.

The show, titled “Wolfsbane and the Flower Moon,” featured six paintings by artist Charica Daugherty about the mass murders of Osage peoples that took place in Oklahoma from the 1910s through the 1930s.

The exhibition, which opened July 15 at Black Wall Street Gallery and was closed two days later, featured works that depicted dream catchers and deceased Native Americans in the nude.

In a statement shared on social media on July 17, the gallery’s owner, Ricco Wright, apologized to the Osage Nation for the exhibition, saying that all images and information about the show had been removed from the gallery’s website, social media accounts, and physical space.

“In the name of conciliation, healing, unity, and love, I’ve decided to close the exhibition, effective immediately,” Wright wrote in the statement. “I should have reached out to the Osage nation before even attempting to present art regarding your history. I sincerely apologize.” 

Neither Ricco nor Daugherty responded to Midnight Publishing Group News’s requests for comment.

In the post, Wright said he planned to donate 100 percent of the profits from the show to a resource center for indigenous women, but later claimed that none of the works had been sold. 

The following day, he published another statement saying that all six works would be cut into “hundreds of pieces so that none are recognizable.” 

“We understand that intention is one thing and impact is another,” he wrote. “Just because our intention was to educate the public on the Osage murders… doesn’t mean that the impact of how we did it wasn’t felt.”  

In June, the Black Wall Street gallery, which was originally founded in Tulsa, was repeatedly vandalized in what was widely assumed to be a hate crime. However, earlier this week, police announced that suspect William Robertson claimed that he defaced the storefront because he believed that Wright was having an affair with his wife, an accusation the gallery owner denied to the New York Post.

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The Lockdown Made Collectors Even Hungrier for Paintings of the Human Form. Is Figuration Fatigue Coming Next?

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.


Reflecting on the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraiture today, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all these collectors waking up one morning, looking around their homes, and asking themselves, “Who are all these people?”

It was a joke, of course. But it got me thinking: Is there figuration fatigue on the horizon? 

There’s a glut of figurative art out there: on social media, in galleries, auction salesrooms, and museums. Building up prior to the pandemic, the desire for figurative paintings, and portraiture in particular, has only accelerated over the past 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have been driving up prices for works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie's.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary artworks sold at auction in the first half of 2021, according to Midnight Publishing Group Analytics (two of the three exceptions depict plants and trees). 

“It’s hard to get away from portraiture,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will display new figurative works by three artists in December. “It remains powerful. Every generation has its own version.”

Artists have been depicting the human figure for millennia, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. As museums and private collectors alike work to fill gaps in their holdings by artists of color, and particularly Black artists, whose work has been undervalued for decades, portraiture has emerged as an important genre. 

Some, however, wonder if the single-minded focus of profit-motivated collectors may keep them from engaging with the true breadth of cultural production. “People want to check these boxes and say they participate in the moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “They want something recognizable, something people can easily spot on a wall. I think there’s going to be fatigue of that. I do hope that the range of artistic practice of the artists of color becomes more appreciated.”

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

There are signs this is already starting to happen. At Lisson gallery in Chelsea, Hugh Hayden has created three chapel-like spaces filled with meticulously sculpted, sawed, and woven objects such as reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian mounted “Social Works,” an exhibition that focuses on community engagement in Black art practice, with monumental sculpture, video installations, and even a functional farm. Theaster Gates contributed a display of 5,000 records amassed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in Black queer circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and a DJ on site is busy digitizing the archive for the duration of the show. 

Works of this scale and complexity would be hard to appreciate, or even grasp, on Instagram, the social media platform that contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits were much easier to digest and acquire because people knew what they were looking at.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

“Even sculptures, in lockdown, it’s hard for people to take this leap of faith and buy something digitally,” said art advisor Ed Tang. “Unless you are standing in front of it, looking at it from various angles, it’s difficult to commit to it.”

In a moment of social isolation, figurative imagery was comforting. “There was a desire to see ourselves in some way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically, or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The drive for figuration is part of the replacement of the socialization process.”

As physical interactions with art resume at museums, art fairs, and biennials, audiences may swing toward something more challenging.

“The way people are looking at art will change,” Tang said. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in every pavilion?”

While it’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, the pendulum seems to regularly swing between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists make work that responds to prevailing ideas and taste, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes, it takes decades to understand the significance of a particular work or artist. A recent rehang of New York’s Museum of Modern Art radically paired Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series #20: Die with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context in the ‘60s when this work was being made,” said art advisor Allan Schwartzman. “Figuration was seen as dated.”

Installation view, "A Thought Sublime." Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Installation view, “A Thought Sublime.” Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

While pure abstraction remains somewhat out of fashion these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre in decades, is making an appearance in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” at Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime,” organized by advisor Lisa Schiff.

“It’s something of a relief from all this figuration,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell. “It may be a bridge back to abstraction for some artists and collectors.”

Some artists are fusing the figure and the landscape. Matthew Marks gallery sold out its current show by 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, who makes haunting portraits and jewel-like allegorical scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting, and anime. (The waiting list for his work is growing.) Prices ranged from $30,000 to $50,000.

A block north, at Cheim and Read gallery, the late Matthew Wong’s ink drawings depict his signature lone figures in exquisitely rendered mystical spaces. Several sold, with prices ranging from $275,000 to $450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see figuration fatigue as linked to the pure volume of material, some of which is bound to be of lower quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” critic Dean Kissick wrote last year in an essay on a wave of painting he called Zombie Figuration. “It crawls into every room, from museums to galleries, to cool young project spaces, to the world at large.” 

Others simply long for a more sophisticated and critical level of discourse than a social media post that says: “Hey I just got this artwork. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” Parrasch said. “It’s never anything deep enough to create an argument. What we have is clicks and underdeveloped thoughts.” 

But weaning off the figure will not happen overnight, said Ron Segev, the co-founder of Thierry Goldberg gallery on the Lower East Side.

“Collectors who are coming to me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t convince people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are some artists out there who are working against the trend. One of these artists will start a new one.”  

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