A new coffee table book out this week is We Are Here: Visionaries of Color Transforming the Art World (Abrams) by Jasmin Hernandez, the founder of the closely followed art blog Gallery Gurls. Since 2012, Hernandez has featured the work of emerging artists, primarily Black artists and artists of color, before they were well-known within the mainstream. For We Are Here, Hernandez conducted 50 new studio visits with artists, including Firelei Báez, Tourmaline, Derek Fordjour, Genevieve Gaignard, Renee Cox, and more, as well as art workers like curators Naima J. Keith and Jasmine Wahi—many of whom had previously been featured on Gallery Gurls. The book includes stunning original photography and Q&As with each of the 50 subjects in a format that is accessible for people at all levels of comfort with the art world.
To learn more about the book and her process, ARTnews spoke with Jasmin Hernandez by phone.
Photo: Sunny Leerasanthanah
ARTnews: How did the idea to collect the stories of these 50 artists, curators, and gallerists of color into one book come together?
Jasmin Hernandez: Over the years, people have always said that I should turn Gallery Gurls, the website, into a book or that there should be an extension of the website as a book. So that idea was always in the back of my mind. About two years ago I was lucky enough to land a nonfiction agent who saw the potential of turning Gallery Gurls into a book—of celebrating Black and Brown visionaries in the art world as a book. Abrams was a dream publisher because they have a rich history of producing gorgeous coffee table books on art and fashion. It was very obvious to me that we just need to be celebrated. By 2018, it was just beyond obvious that people like Genevieve Gaignard, Lola Flash, or Tourmaline, who are shifting culture, need to be documented.
We were getting very comfortable with listicles: “10 Black Artists to Follow on Instagram,” “10 Latinx Artists to Follow on Instagram.” That wasn’t enough. That’s very fleeting. I said to Abrams during our first meeting: “We need to move beyond the listicle, and we need a collective cultural history in a tangible book form.” That spoke to them and inspired them to acquire the title.
Can you talk about your journey in the art world, from starting Gallery Gurls to today?
Around 2011, I wanted to find space for myself in the art world. I took a continuing ed course at Sotheby’s called “Careers in Contemporary Art.” It was an eye-opening class. People like Carter Cleveland, the founder of Artsy, and Richard Aste, who was then a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, came to speak to our class. Every week I was exposed to different workers in the art world. None of them were people of color. It was a class of like maybe 25 people, and it was myself and another Black woman, a Jamaican woman, who were the only two Black women in the class. We instantly connected, and we formed a bond and started going to art fairs together. We went to the first Frieze New York in 2012. We came up with the idea of Gallery Gurls in 2012, so we started it together. That’s why Gurls is plural, because there were two of us in the beginning, but she had a full-time job working in law and she bowed out and then I just continued shaping the website to my vision.
Devan Shimoyama in front of two vibrant works in progress in his Pittsburgh studio, located on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.
Photo: Sunny Leerasanthanah/©2021 Jasmin Hernandez
Can you describe how you shaped that vision and built such a dedicated following for Gallery Gurls? Many of the artists who you have featured are now really famous, but weren’t as well-known when you wrote about them.
Social media is my best friend—Instagram was my best tool. The website started in 2012, so Instagram was in its infancy. Many of these relationships started digitally. It was mutual fan-girling: me fan-girling over Hiba Schahbaz, me fan-girling over Jordan Casteel. It was simple IG art crushes that turned on to me seeing their work in person, that led to me seeing their work in their studio, and them understanding my energy and me understanding their energy. The energy was so beautiful and so organic.
We would have these amazing conversations when I would do studio visits with them that would last for hours. We would talk about being Black and Brown, about inequity in the art world, about the overwhelming whiteness that just saturates all the avenues of the art world. It was a pure understanding that we need to uplift each other, follow each other, support each other, and make space for each other. It was just one foot in front of the other every day, every week, every month, seeing and learning about as many artists as possible. Pretty soon my focus expanded from artists to also include cultural producers, curators, people who run collectives. It was important to profile people like [art dealer] Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels and [curator] Jasmine Wahi.
Genevieve Gaignard, an ultimate style chameleon, in her fashionable studio in Los Angeles.
Photo: by Jasmine Durhal/© 2021 Jasmin Hernandez
How did you choose which 50 people to include in the book and how did you decide on the format?
It was a 50-headed monster because it’s 50 individuals and their teams. I walked away from a full-time job in media to work part-time in retail for two years and do this book on my days off. We would shoot three to four people at a time. Of the 50 subjects, there are 40 in New York and 10 on the West Coast. I just worked with stamina, patience, sincerity, care, nuance, and compassion.
With the 50 people I chose, I looked at my website to the people that I’ve already profiled, who I just absolutely saw as being a part of the book. Someone like Derrick Adams or Lola Flash—there’s just no way that they couldn’t be a part of it. There were people that were IG art crushes that I had followed forever, and I had never met until I met them for the first time at the shoot. There were people that I had not known before compiling the book, like Felipe Baeza. I looked at his IG page and his website, and I quickly sent an email to include him. KT Pe Benito is another example of that. They are a multidisciplinary artist who I learned about when I was researching queer artists on the Queer|Art website. Their work just spoke to me. I don’t overthink things—I go by vibe and energy.
KT Pe Benito in their former live/work space in Queens, New York, standing in front of their oil pastel, Becoming My Own Island (2019), and excerpts from their multimedia installation Entries to Faustina (Growing out of colonialism for my grandmother’s sake) (2018).
Photo: Sunny Leerasanthanah/©2021 Jasmin Hernandez
The inclusion of queer, trans, and nonbinary folks was paramount to me. I wanted to make sure that was also reflected on the cover. I tried to be as inclusive as possible on the cover, prioritizing Black people. There are six Black people on the cover, including a Black Latinx person, Suhaly Bautista-Carolina. I also made sure we had nonbinary representation with KT Pe Benito and trans representation with Tourmaline. I wanted to emphasize Black artists on back cover of the book as well: Derrick Adams, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Afro-Latinx artist Firelei Báez. I prioritized Black people throughout the entire book. It is a book of Black and Brown creators, but you will find more Black people represented, specifically Black women.
There’s also a lot of peer-to-peer synchronicity within the book. So, for example, Gabriel García Román is included in the book. He has a series called “Queer Icons,” which has included Kia LaBeija and Lola Flash, who are also folks in the book. Another example is Hiba Schahbaz, who is a subject in the book, and a print of hers appears in Diya Vij’s living room. There’s this synchronicity of everyone being in dialogue, sharing their work, sharing space.
In terms of the artists featured, there’s also a huge diversity in terms of the media that they work with.
I wanted to show the myriad of ways of art-making. There’s photography and sculpture and painting—abstract painting and figurative painting—and immersive installations. I wanted to show the myriad of ways that you could make and produce art.
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels in her Brooklyn home. Her art collection includes Mel Bochner, Leslie Hewitt, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hank Willis Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Jackie Nickerson.
Photo: Sunny Leerasanthanah/©2021 Jasmin Hernandez
The book has a very conversational tone, and it also feels like it’s really for anyone—not just people well-acquainted with the art world. I think about what it would have been like to have a book like this when I was younger.
In the first sentences in my introduction to the book, I say, “I have zero professional experience in the art world. I’ve never worked for a top gallery or an important museum, and I don’t have a fancy graduate degree in art history or visual arts criticism.” In the intro, I invite readers into a world of universality and accessibility and openness. It’s also continuation of my tone on the website, which has a very open, accessible voice.
I was intentional about doing that with the interviews. Everyone was sent 10 questions, with eight being the same and two that were tailored for that subject. We published the five or six strongest answers, which include those two tailored questions. I wasn’t going to make it academic. I didn’t want it to sound like a textbook. I just wanted openness and universality. Another thing is, I wasn’t going to focus on Black trauma and pain. I wanted to celebrate joy. There’s joy in answering, “What is your favorite color?” There’s joy in answering, “Who is your favorite fictional character?”
One of those questions is “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?” Was that tailored for young people considering a career in the arts?
I would love for this book to reach museum leadership, but I also want it to reach a Black kid living in Brooklyn, a Dominican-American kid living in the Heights, a Nuyorican kid living in the Bronx, and a Chicanx kid living in East L.A. This is a book for them, particularly for BIPOC Gen Z. They’re the next generation, and they’re going to come into their 20s in the 2020s, and there will be a new slew of Black and Brown Gen Z disruptors.
I also believe that this should not be the only book. I hope this book can turn to a series, with more volumes. It shouldn’t be that this is a random book that came out 2021 because of what happened in 2020. This is an ongoing, lifelong permanent conversation. Fifty people: it’s a start, but it’s not everyone.