London’s Somerset House is abuzz with activity. The halls of the large neoclassical building, situated on the south side of London’s Strand, are filled with art from the African continent. 42 galleries have taken over London’s Somerset House for the fifth edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, aptly named to represent the 54 nations that make up Africa, highlighting a pulsating mix of more than 130 established and emerging artists—a stark comparison to 1-54’s first fair in 2013 when just 17 dealers participated.
“African art is so visible now but when I started the fair in 2013 there was really nothing on contemporary African art,” says fair founder and director Touria El Glaoui. “While the fair is still dependent on international collectors, each year there are more and more collectors who make the trip from the continent.” In her eyes, African art and its diaspora had been largely ignored by the Western art world canon. El Glaoui, who grew up in the Moroccan art world, the daughter of Hassan El Glaoui, one of the country’s most acclaimed painters, desired to foster a change for what she believed was an underrepresented region.
“I thought it was quite unfair for the artists—especially because the work I saw was so good,” she says. Living in London and pursuing a corporate career, El Glaoui called out to her African and European art world connections and launched the first edition of the fair in London in October 2013. Two years later, she took 1-54 stateside to New York. “The mission of 1-54 is to give visibility to artists; we want to give them access to places they didn’t have access to before,” she says. It’s been a huge success. “Approximately 75 percent are returning galleries, many of which have also done New York and London,” she adds.
Touria El Glaoui at 1: 54 New York 2016 © Max Lakner for Bfa.com
The happy sounds of rock music emanate from one room where British-Moroccan Hassan Hajjaj’s dynamic street-inspired pop art decorates several spaces in La Caravane, his first UK solo exhibition in seven years. The artist’s nine-screen video installation, My Rockstars, presents a cast of underground musicians and performers that the artist filmed separately over a year—all donned in his signature mix of vivid colours and clashing textures inspired by everyday Maghreb life.
Upstairs are the haunting films of French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira at Plutschow Gallery and the abstract expressionist paintings of Tunisian Thameur Mejri at Galerie Elmarsa. Elsewhere are the rich, multifaceted works of Ghanaian Godfried Donkor at Gallery 1957, the evocative paintings of Kudzanai-Violet Hwami from Zimbabwe at Tyburn Gallery, the poignant photographs of Lakin Ogunbanwo at Cape Town gallery Whatiftheworld, and the captivating paintings of Nigerian Abe Odedina at Ed Cross Fine Art. Outside, taking over the Fountain Court, Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou’s massive site-specific installation, produced by Galleria Continua and entitled Summer Surprise (2017), grabs fair-goers’ attention with its impressive wooden-framed structure, referencing togunas or public structures found in Mali built for the purpose of discussing community and constitutional issues and, according to the fair, “facilitating debate and intellectual exchange.”
Mudaulane. Sistema falhado. 2017. Chinese ink on paper. 172x183cm. Courtesy of Arte de Gema
Tayou’s work might serve as a metaphor for a larger discussion on African contemporary art, and one which 1-54 has fostered since the beginning. Up until a few years ago, Africa badly needed a cultural conversation. With the 9,500-square-metre Zeitz MOCAA (page 68), a privately funded mega-gallery known as Africa’s first contemporary art museum in Cape Town, opening this September, art from the continent couldn’t be hotter. Major art world players flocked to South Africa to get a glimpse of the impressive Heatherwick-designed edifice and the art inside. Albeit the cultural controversy rife from the start, the museum offers a nesting ground for contemporary art from Africa—there’s finally an institution that provides a structure and art historical debate.
Moreover, the museum, like several other institutions as well as 1-54, which is gearing up for its first edition in Marrakech in February 2018, are giving African art a base at home. “African artists used to need to export themselves—live outside of Africa—to have some sort of career,” says El Glaoui. “That’s changing now. Now there are institutions and private collectors on the continent and that is really going to change the game.” Auction houses such as Bonhams, which holds a biannual sale titled Africa Now, and Sotheby’s, which staged its fist-ever Modern and Contemporary art sale in May, tell of changing tides for the African art market. “Collectors are very curious; they are always after the next big thing,” says El Glaoui. “When we started, Contemporary African art was not yet discovered from a collector base. Now collectors have access to Africa through our fair and through auction houses and galleries. There’s a whole art ecosystem in Africa that is becoming known.”
Work by Virginia Chihota. Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary
Taking place from 23-25 February 2018 and held at La Mamounia, one of Morocco’s most esteemed hotels, the first edition of 1-54 Marrakech will be smaller in size, with just 17 galleries from the continent exhibiting. The fair will be part of a larger programme of events, involving activations at the YSL Museum as well as MACAAL, a new museum for African contemporary art. Strategically located, Marrakech serves as a bridge between North Africa, Europe and the rest of Africa. “It has this power as a destination and I am counting on that to also help the fair,” says El Glaoui. “Certainly there will be a stronger North African contingent of galleries at 1-54 Marrakech, but we are making sure the rest of the continent is well-represented.”
Yet when the Marrakech edition was announced, El Glaoui received some questioning. “When I told some major supporters of 1-54 who come from Nigeria and West Africa, that we were doing a fair in Marrakech, they said I should have chosen a place in Africa. They didn’t think that Marrakech was Africa. Geographically, for me, Morocco is Africa, but I can’t speak for everyone.” The fair’s participating galleries include Art Twenty One from Lagos, Nigeria; Galerie Cécile Fakhoury from Abidjan; Galerie Mikael Andersen from Copenhagen; Parisian Galerie Vallois; L’Atelier 21 from Casablanca; Milan-based Officine Dell’Immagine; London-based Tiwani Contemporary; Vigo Gallery from London; and VOICE gallery from Marrakech.
JP Mika. Plaisir d’enfance. 2017.Acrylic on canvas. 203x151cm. Courtesy of MAGNIN-A
“The main reason why we chose Marrakech was to find a city that could host an international event—a place where a majority of collectors coming from Europe and the US would still be attracted to come,” she says. “I am not forgetting why I started 1-54. All those collectors were not visiting Africa before to find art.” Moreover, Morocco was one of the last countries to participate in London and New York fairs, says El Glaoui. “It took us a lot of time to convince Moroccan and Tunisian galleries to participate. They didn’t feel that they were in their space—perhaps more because of the Arabic culture. They saw it as a Sub-Saharan event.”
That’s all changed now and El Glaoui is proceeding on her mission to bring contemporary African art home to Africa. The Marrakech edition will maintain its rich educational and curatorial programme, and is currently in talks with curator Omar Berrada to come on board as the FORUM curator in Marrakech. “We started a strong educational platform in 2013 because there were so many questions on why we were doing a fair on African art and why we were calling these artists ‘African’,” she says. “We thought what better way to respond to all these questions than to have a platform that was specifically created to educate and address some of those issues that were coming back repetitively by curators, artists and by the art market itself.” The educational arm of 1-54 falls under FORUM, the fair’s talks programme, curated for the past five years in London by Koyo Kouoh, founder and artistic director of RAW Material Company, Dakar. “We are in the midst of fine-tuning FORUM now, perhaps making it more geographical,” adds El Glaoui.
Malala Andrialavidrazana. Figures, 1861, Natural History of Mankind. 2015. UltraChrome Pigment Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, 305 gsm. 120x130cm. Edition of five + one Artist’s proof. Courtesy of AFRONOVA GALLERY
Clearly, 1-54 is part of a larger educational process to further grow a local African art scene—one that has been present for decades but hitherto unknown abroad. “There’s still work to be done, I hope 1-54 will do this in Marrakech,” says El Glaoui, who cites a variety of collector’s dinners and educational initiatives that 1-54 regularly holds between fairs to foster a local collector base and an intercultural dialogue.
Africa certainly holds much allure. It’s still a largely unchartered territory rife in cultural and artistic discovery. In many ways, Africa is the last frontier. What could be more exciting than an art-inspired trip to Senegal or Sierra Leone? El Glaoui laughs, “Wouldn’t it be nice if one day it were Africa who was inviting the rest of the world to the fair? Africa would play the host inviting countries such as Palestine or Iceland or Cuba—all those countries which are in the same situation with not enough visibility for their art scene?” Yes, this would be nice.