Art Basel had a slew of highlights this year, one being the 8th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, which was hosted by the talented Issa Rae. The annual arts competition is committed to cultivating the talents of up and coming visual artists by providing a platform to showcase their work.  Sixteen awe-inspiring artists were selected from a pool of thousands, who’s winning works were featured within a special exhibition at SCOPE Miami Beach before the grand finale at the Villa Casa Casuarina.

Curated by Artsy, an online global art platform, Rae took the stage to congratulate the finalists before Bombay Sapphire gin announced Vancouver based artist, Vanessa Lam as the 2017 Grand Prize Winner. Lam will collaborate with Artsy next spring for  an immersive public arts installation in New York City. Two other artists were also recognized including second Place Winner Ariel Vargassal (Los Angeles) and People’s Choice Winner Charity White (Chicago). The LA and Chicago -based artists will create a collection of work following their win, which will debut next spring at gallery exhibits in their hometowns.

As a creator and woman of color, Rae shared her thoughts with EBONY on being apart of such a platform, supporting underrepresented creatives, using your network and pushing beyond your doubt.

EBONY: Did you know about the Bombay Artisan Series prior to hosting and how did you get involved?

Issa Rae: Embracing and being inspired by relatively unknown creatives has always been a passion of mine, and it really just felt right when Bombay Sapphire reached out for this year’s program. I had the honor of hosting the 8th Annual Artisan Series Finale, which celebrates the program’s 16 finalists during Miami Art Week. It excites me to be a part of a program that champions emerging talent and shines a spotlight on the remarkable works of underrepresented artists throughout North America. I love to celebrate programs that embrace inclusivity, and getting involved with this year’s Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series was a natural fit with my personal missions.

Your storytelling through the Black lens has definitely inspired the need for more multicultural talents in many creative spaces. Do you think the Artisan Series has opened up opportunism for artist of color as well? Any work you are looking forward to seeing?

Similar to the entertainment industry, there is such an immense pool of undiscovered and diverse artists who oftentimes are not given a platform to showcase their talent. In order to help breed the next generation of outstanding creatives, it’s crucial to support organizations dedicated to broadening the industry’s spectrum. I’m proud to have been involved in this year’s Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, supporting a program that rallies behind artists while encouraging them to break barriers and create a more diverse and inclusive industry.

I enjoyed seeing all of the inspiring works of this year’s finalists at the finale party before announcing the Grand Prize Winner, Vanessa Lam, who will have the exciting opportunity to collaborate with Artsy on a public installation in New York City next spring. The fact that all of the finalists had the opportunity to showcase their work on a national scale at SCOPE Miami Beach throughout the week is such a huge opportunity for everyone involved.

Issa Rae with Top 3 Winners at the 8th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale
Issa Rae with Top 3 Winners at the 8th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale

Your sense of humor is obviously a huge part of your artform and you’ve said you often felt like you were straddling two worlds when you were growing up. How did you get to the point where you accepted your “awkward” nuances to be able to create your work to date?
I think that comes with age and growing to be comfortable with who you are. I think everybody reaches her certain point where they stop trying to change who they are and for me, that came in my mid-20s, where I realized: “Oh… this is who I am. How can I find a way to embrace that?” Now whenever I create a project or a character, I look for those parts of myself that make me wholly me.

I know you started writing scripts at a young age and even reached out to Gina Prince-Bythewood after watching ‘Love & Basketball. Young creatives receive a lot of “no’s” in the industry, would you say her support gave you a confidence push you didn’t even know you needed?
Most definitely. Just the fact that she wrote back encouraged me. It was just so strangely validating to hear from your hero, and for me it just further made me feel like I could do it. I think support and encouragement is so important because artists can be so fragile, but at the same time, you’re constantly looking for signs and reasons to continue, because you’re being discouraged at every turn. So, I’m definitely grateful for her encouragement.

Host Issa Rae mingling with friends and Insecure co-stars at the 8th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale
Host Issa Rae mingling with friends and Insecure co-stars at the 8th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale

Black female friendship is so important in your show Insecure, which can easily translate to the importance of the Black network in general. In your viral clip, you shared how important it was to tap into those around you. Have you always had a positive experience with working with your peers and how do you think we can move away from the “crabs in the barrel” mindset?

Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, the phrase “network across” came from one of my college peers, Amy Aniobi. We went to school together, she helped me write on web series “Awkward Black Girl” and now she writes and produces “Insecure” with me. I’ve had mostly positive experiences working with my peers, and even the negative experiences I’ve had have served as learning experiences to help me grow and be better as I grow. It’s way better to have a first-time negative experience with someone who’s on the same level as you than to have a first-time negative experience with someone who is “higher than you” and who could potentially stunt the growth of your career. Stop trying to step over people to get to the top and hold their hands as you climb — it’s just so much easier and so much more fun that way.

You’re a CoverGirl with a new show on the way and your first major film role in The Hate U Give. One, what can we expect from your latest endeavor with HBO? And lastly, is there an anecdote or advice you can share that would encourage young Black creatives who now look to you for inspiration?

I’m just trying to continue to create, collaborate and curate. In all mediums. I love being creative and being around creative people and I’m going to do that as long as I can. To people who look to me for inspiration, I always say that if I can do it, you can do it. It’s all about doing the work and being prepared (and patient) for your time to come.