Industry Insights: Nicola Vassell on coordinating Jordan Brand’s latest shoot with Ming Smith

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As Jordan Brand introduces its largest ever female roster, Vassell discusses her collaboration with photographer Ming Smith, WNBA athletes, and legendary basketball player Michael Jordan

Gallerist, curator, and art dealer Nicola Vassell understands the revolutionary power of photography and the ways in which building strong communities can transform cultural paradigms. With the Family Shot, which introduces the Jordan Brand’s largest-ever female roster, Vassell teamed up with photographer Ming Smith and stylist Carlos Nazario to create a series of luminous black and white photographs of emerging WNBA superstars changing the global game.

Rolling out digitally on 21 June before opening as a pop-up exhibition at Vassell’s New York gallery on 29 June, then continuing through July with new images appearing in various publications and on the Nike site, Family Shot illustrates the Jordan Brand’s dedication to woman athletes and Black creatives alike. 

“Having the opportunity to collaborate with Michael Jordan, the women of the WNBA, and Ming Smith is an affirmation of this moment,” says Vassell. “There was a mindful congregation of Black creative excellence, leadership, and ideas at the inception of this project. Here you have these women who in their grace, strength, power, and elegance have reached the top of a male-dominated field and have not gotten their due. Then, you have arguably the greatest athlete of all time saying they are more than worthy of attention and support. These are statements that need to be made, giving an example to the world of how things can be.”

Behind the scenes on Jordan Brand's Family Shot shoot. © Jordan Brand. Photographed by Ming Smith, styled by Carlos Nazario.

“It’s all about community-building, bringing your sisters and brothers along, and creating a cycle of support for people who have been oppressed, sidelined, or not granted first access.”

Nicola Vassell

Jordan Family © Jordan Brand. Photographed by Ming Smith, styled by Carlos Nazario.

Recognising the obstacles woman athletes face, the Jordan Brand is dedicated to shaping the future of basketball culture by championing their talent, strength, form, and finesse. “The world needs female voices, and we can’t ignore that or else we’re not growing,” Michael Jordan says. “The Jordan Brand is committed to giving women a platform to amplify their voices, which influence, inspire and push culture forward.”

This is equally true in photography and art. As the first Black woman to have her work included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Smith’s legacy is built on the power of dedication and perseverance against the odds. Understanding the commitment it takes to succeed, Smith’s photographs of WNBA superstars Jordin Canada, Kia Nurse, Crystal Dangerfield, Chelsea Dungee, Te’a Cooper, Dearica Hamby, Arella Guirantes, and Aerial Powers capture the beauty, nuance, and complexity of a new roster of athletes who embody the Jordan Brand’s history of greatness.

Vassell’s decision to bring Smith to the campaign is an integral part of her working process. “Smith would not necessarily be the original thought; one would have to go a little left to come up with this idea,” says Vassell, who is no stranger to centering the work of Black artists throughout her career. Working at the forefront of the contemporary Black Arts Movement, Vassell has used her position to promote the work of artists including Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, Jordan Casteel, Nick Cave, Arthur Jafa, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.

“It’s all about community-building, bringing your sisters and brothers along, and creating a cycle of support for people who have been oppressed, sidelined, or not granted first access,” says Vassell, who recently opened her New York gallery with the inaugural exhibition Ming Smith: Evidence. The show will close its run with Here for a Reason, a pop-up exhibition of selections from Family Shot from 29 June to 02 July.

Te'a Cooper © Jordan Brand. Photographed by Ming Smith, styled by Carlos Nazario.
Kia Nurse © Jordan Brand. Photographed by Ming Smith, styled by Carlos Nazario.

Moving fluidly between the fine art world and commercial campaigns, Vassell recognises the medium is the message. “Photography is the main conduit, the evidence, and outcome of all these travels and collaborations,” she says. “The fine art photographer almost always sees the world in ways no one else can; they are searching for the unseen within the typical. Brands would do well to consider that collaboration because really wonderful things could emerge as a consequence.”

Collaboration is at the very heart of Vassell’s philosophy. “Our role is to nourish and uplift,” says Vassell, who is using the traditional format of the gallery to anchor her place in the art world. After traveling the globe for years as principal of Concept NV, Vassell’s art consultancy and curatorial agency, and  curatorial director of The Dean Collection and No Commission, a contemporary family art collection and cultural platform developed by musicians Kasseem “Swizz Beatz “ Dean and Alicia Keys, Vassell recognised the value of starting her own gallery.

“We realised we could do everything we wanted to do and contribute to the cycle of storytelling in a meaningful way if we ‘fit into the mold’ so to speak,” Vassell says. “As a Black woman and having a Black female right hand, doing this in and of itself would be a revolution.”

Nicola Vassell Gallery’s inaugural show, Ming Smith: Evidence, will be turned over into a pop-up exhibition from 29 June to 02 July, 2021, showcasing Smith’s images from Family Shot with  Jordan Brand. 

Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books by Arlene Gottfried, Allan Tannenbaum, and Harvey Stein, as well as magazines and websites including Time, Vogue, Aperture, Dazed, AnOther, and Vice, among others.