The first international African art fair debuted in New York during Frieze Week.
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is a fairly new addition to the international art world and is already expanding from London to New York. This move testifies to the ever growing interest in contemporary African art on the international stage.
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair was founded in 2013 to coincide with Frieze Week in London by Moroccan-born market developer Touria El Glaoui, a passionate promoter of African art and daughter of one of the most respected Moroccan artists, Hassan El Glaoui.
The name of the fair, 1:54, is a reference to the 54 countries that constitute the African continent (one continent:54 countries). Talking to Hyperallergic, the Fair’s Founder said that the aim of 1:54 is
to share and give visibility to the diversity of the African art scene, to be a player in the international scene.
The London edition takes place at Somerset House, a historic building and major cultural arts centre in the heart of London. In 2015, the fair will inaugurate its third UK iteration from 15 to 18 October.
1:54 started off its first London edition with 17 exhibitors and 70 artists. In 2014, it grew to host 24 galleries from territories such as Kenya, South Africa, France, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom and United States of America, presenting over 100 artists. Among the 2014 exhibitors were Afronova from Johannesburg, Art 21 from Lagos, Art Lab Africa from Nairobi, as well as international galleries such as London’s October Gallery, New York’s Taymour Grahne and Milan’s Primo Marella Gallery.
1:54 New York
This year, 1:54 debuted in New York during Frieze Week (PDF download) from 15 to 17 May 2015 at Pioneer Works, Center for Art + Innovation in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The fair was held at an iron factory built in 1866 with a 24,000-square-metre exhibition space re-adapted for 1:54 by London-based award-winning architecture and design studio RA Projects – who also designed the 2014 London edition.
As in London, the young African art fair takes advantage of the international art crowds converging to the city for Frieze, while at the same time giving the opportunity to larger audiences to discover and learn more about contemporary art from the African continent.
1:54 in New York featured sixteen exhibitors, half from Africa, and half from Europe and the United States, showcasing over sixty artists from Africa and its diaspora. Artnet News points out that exhibitors from Africa came from only four countries: five from South Africa, one each from Ivory Coast, Morocco and Nigeria.
El Glaoui explained to Artnet News:
Obviously, we are just touching the tip of the iceberg with what we are representing. It is going to be evolving in terms of what you see at 1:54. All of these art scenes are developing right now.
Speaking to Blouin Artinfo about the issue of equal representation for all in the fair, El Glaoui said:
We aim to highlight the best exhibitors and artists working in the field across international parameters. Given the size of 1:54 – and that the New York edition will be even more intimate – it would be impossible to work with exhibitors located in every African country. In this sense, it isn’t a survey presentation, but a showcase of the most engaging, rigorous and exciting artists at this time, represented by dedicated and pioneering exhibitors.
El Glaoui says about the move to New York:
My goal too from the beginning was to create a destination for collectors and curators who want to see more contemporary African artworks and coming to New York was the logical next step.
Highlights at 1:54 New York
The artists at 1:54 in New York span several generations and diverse media, including painting, sculpture, photography and installation. This year’s selection includes works by:
- Edson Chagas, the star of the Angola Pavilion, which was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013
- Prix Pictet shortlist photographer Sammy Baloji
- Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté
- Tunisian artist and researcher Nidhal Chamekh
- Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama
- Lavar Munroe from Bahamas
Other artists who are establishing a global presence are Aboudia and Boris Nzebo from Jack Bell Gallery (London), Maïmouna Guerresi and ruby onyinyechi amanze from Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Seattle) and Joël Andrianomearisoa from Primo Marella Gallery (Milan).
The growth of African art on the international stage
African-born curator Okwui Enwezor has re-balanced the art world at the 56th Venice Biennale by giving precedence to many artists from the ‘peripheries’ of the world in the Central Exhibition “All The World’s Futures”. Among the 136 participants, 21 are from the African continent, including from countries like Malawi, Togo and Mozambique, among the more internationally known art from Nigeria and South Africa. The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement was awarded to El Anatsui from Ghana.
Speaking with the CNN upon his return from the Biennale, Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian artist, art historian and curator, said:
After this exhibition [56th Venice Biennale], any supposedly international contemporary art exhibition that does not include a reasonable number of African and black artists will look so small, and utterly narrow-minded.
Africa is the new China when it comes to art. When the Tate, the Smithsonian and other similar institutions start putting on exhibitions of contemporary African art, then one knows that something strange and wonderful has occurred and that real change is in the air.
Since 2007, Bonhams in London hosts Africa Now, the only annual sale of its kind globally, selling modern and contemporary African art. London’s The Auction Room followed suit in 2013, with its inaugural African Contemporary and Modern Art auction, and in 2014, it held the world’s first African Contemporary Photography Auction.
A host of institutional exhibitions of contemporary African art have also taken place in recent years, such as:
- Meschac Gaba’s “Museum of Contemporary African Art” (2013, Tate Modern, London)
- “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” (2015, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington)
- “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” (2015, Seattle Art Museum)
- “Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists”, curated by 1:54 curator Koyo Kouoh (2015, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels), among others.
In an interview with Blouin Artinfo, El Glaoui comments on the visibility of African artists, explaining how events such as 1:54 help to bring art from the continent out on the global stage:
I think the biggest limitation that we’ve seen is that Africa is not easy to access for most people. The fact that there’s no access to contemporary African art means there’s no knowledge, no education when it comes to it. It had until now been something very niche, but what we’ve seen in London with the two editions is that this is appealing now to a larger spectrum of the collectors, who think that they have to include contemporary African art in their collection. I think it’s a bit of a vicious circle; if you have no access to it, you can’t have curators thinking of even including them in exhibitions.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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