Featured in
Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

How “Focus” Gallerists “Reflect the Aura of Los Angeles”

Under the curation of Essence Harden for the first time, 2024’s section for young galleries is rooted in community, place and ideas of ecology


BY Taylor Bythewood-Porter in Frieze Week Magazine | 27 FEB 24

It’s a warm afternoon in late November 2023 when I meet up with Essence Harden in Downtown Los Angeles to discuss their role as curator of the Focus section at this year’s edition of Frieze Los Angeles. Harden has chosen to examine art as ecology and how the interconnectedness at the heart of this idea highlights regional relationships and elevates ancestral frameworks. As they explain: “While organizing my vision, I thought of the word ‘ecologies’ as a traditional art term, but in reference to the relationship between humans and non-human things with the environment. Each of the exhibiting artists has a base relationship with that theme, in their imagery, color and form, and with the principles of the earth.”

Harden is visual arts curator and program manager at the California African American Museum in LA, where she coordinated “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” (on view until March 3), co-organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Other shows include “California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold,” co-curated with Elizabeth Armstrong and Gilbert Vicario at Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa, and “Mappings” at Residency Art Gallery in Inglewood in 2019. Like this year’s Focus section, the latter addressed concepts of memory, cosmology and geographical knowledge. “It’s like a draft or a chapter: one exhibition, one moment doesn’t have to be the end,” says Harden. “I think of these things as being revisited; Black visual culture, California, the ways in which people practice here are themes that I return to often.”

Essence Harden
Essence Harden. Photo: Simons Finnerty

Expanding on ideas around migration and movement within California and the US is important to Harden as a third-generation Californian. “My family has lived between southern and northern California our whole lives. The state itself operates as a single entity, as a home base.” This deep connection to the region’s arts and cultural community can be felt in Harden’s Focus. When I ask how the section is specific to LA, they respond: “Because I’m based here, I have a deep fondness and pride for what LA has been for me. In my curatorial practice, I’m always looking towards what the city itself is producing—when you have something from out of town, like Frieze, coming to LA, it’s important that the home base is really able to show up.”

Harden has selected 12 galleries, nine of which are based in California. This year, the fair’s layout has been redesigned and all exhibitors are in one tent. Harden observes: “What’s great about Focus being folded into the main section is that these galleries and artists will be seen as being just as powerful, just as worthy for visitors to stop, pause and pay attention.”

Los Angeles-based Babst Gallery is presenting pieces by the late Harry Fonseca. “We are working with the Autry Museum of the American West and the Heard Museum, with dealers and people who knew Harry, to put together a complete list of works,” explains Helen Babst. Fonseca was of Hawaiian, Portuguese and Nisenan Maidu ancestry, and was an enrolled citizen of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. His paintings and drawings represent oral traditions, utilizing signs and symbols to make sense of dark histories and sacred moments. In one series from 1991–92, Fonseca confronts the bloodshed and forced labor that California’s Indigenous populations were subjected to during the 19th-century Gold Rush.

Yeni Mao, showing with Make Room, touches on similar subjects. Mao’s new body of work comprises four- to six-foot-tall sculptures made of steel armatures combined with ceramics, animal skin and volcanic rock, displayed atop a mound of soil. Through his sculptural recreations of the floorplans of tunnels underneath the Mexico-US border town of Mexicali, Mao addresses the history of Chinese and Chinese Mexican populations who have inhabited this land since the turn of the 20th century. “We are creating a whole installation around these works,” says Emelia Yin, the gallery’s owner. In his visual language, Mao forms moments of suspension: a term borrowed from architecture that refers to abstract concepts of strength and balance. This is evident in his presentation here, in which the artist encourages the audience to consider the experiences of diasporic communities through space and material.

At Quinn Harrelson, Ser Serpas turns trash into poetry, engaging with diverse media. The artist, who grew up in the LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights, reappraises found objects, critiquing and celebrating their value—or lack thereof—and working them into her sculptural work. With its muted tones and carnal abstractions, Serpas’s work plays on ideas of the body, vulnerability and identity.

Mustafa Ali Clayton’s presentation with Dominique Gallery echoes Mao’s and Serpas’s engagement with selfhood. Best known for his large, ebony-glaze busts depicting Black bodies, in Focus, Clayton presents a new terracotta series referencing legacy-building and commemoration. Gallery owner Dominique Clayton, who is married to the artist, explains: “These are objects of permanence. They are things that are meant to last forever. Clay is the oldest form of technology; it allowed us to make beautiful things, to eat, to warm our homes.” Clayton’s use of natural elements and sustainable materials is a nod to African societies. His work often elevates Black womanhood and manhood, while simultaneously confronting and questioning their associated iconography. Clayton’s hand-built, labor-intensive sculptures present a reclaiming of self as a tool for social justice.

New works by Lilian Martinez at Ochi Gallery consider self-care as an act of resistance. Her bright and playful scenes depict women at leisure, enjoying fruit, looking at art or basking in the sun. Centering brown bodies in her practice, Martinez prioritizes ideas of safety, harmony and nourishment, while acknowledging a history of gender and racial inequality, especially for women of color. Her protagonists appear in narratives that suggest femininity and autonomy, memories of a forgotten past and an imagined future.

In juxtaposition with Martinez’s figurative future is the work of Muzae Sesay, at pt.2 gallery, whose abstracted, Afrofuturistic worlds present a new language. The Oakland-based artist, who hails from Long Beach, looks to his Sierra Leonean ancestry to imagine a fictionalized future in which the West African country keeps its natural resources and becomes an imperial force for good. Approaching world- building through the architecture of structured shapes and tones reminiscent of a Californian sunset, these paintings envision new economic systems and places of safety and tranquility. Exploring memory and community through perceived truths, Sesay’s new body of work poses the question: “What if?”.

This year’s Focus reflects the aura of Los Angeles. The work on show contemplates migration and identity within that space of movement, conveys the city’s rebelliousness and sense of limitlessness. Harden not only honors the Californian ethos but connects to universal themes of awareness, socio-economics, diversity and reclaiming the self. “I feel so much gratitude for how LA has allowed me to think about my place here and innovate, change and grow,” says Harden. “I hope that the project feels fluid, exciting and intentional—all at once.”

Focus, curated by Essence Harden, is on view at Frieze Los Angeles for the duration of the fair, featuring: Babst Gallery showing Harry Fonseca; Matthew Brown showing Kent O’Connor; Dominique Gallery showing Mustafa Ali Clayton; Quinn Harrelson showing Ser Serpas; Lyles & King showing Akea Brionne; Make Room showing Yeni Mao; Chela Mitchell Gallery showing Siena Smith; Shulamit Nazarian showing Widline Cadet; Ochi Gallery showing Lilian Martinez; pt.2 gallery showing Muzae Sesay; Sow & Tailor showing Javier Ramirez; and Hannah Traore Gallery showing James Perkins.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024 under the title “Starting Lineup.”

Further information

Frieze Los Angeles is at Santa Monica Airport, February 29–March 3, 2024.

Last chance to get tickets to the fair

Frieze In Person membership is now sold out, but there are still limited tickets available to purchase for this weekend. Grab them now before they're gone.


To keep up to date on all the latest news from Frieze, sign up to the newsletter at frieze.com, and follow @friezeofficial on Instagram, Twitter and Frieze Official on Facebook

Frieze Los Angeles is supported by global lead partner Deutsche Bank, continuing over two decades of a shared commitment to artistic excellence

Main image, left to right: Seth Curcio (Shulamit Nazarian), Emilia Yin (Make Room), Essence Harden, Shulamit Nazarian (Shulamit Nazarian), Dominique Clayton (Dominique Gallery), Helen Babst (Babst Gallery), Karen Galloway (Sow & Tailor), Pauli Ochi (Ochi Gallery). Photo: Simons Finnerty

Taylor Bythewood-Porter is an independent curator and writer. She lives in Los Angeles, USA.