Reflections from the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair

The London 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place recently from 14th – 18th October at Somerset House, south side of the Strand on the River Thames. 1:54 coincides with the Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters, and presents 38 exhibitors (including 5 special projects) with approximately 150 African and African Diasporan artists represented. Johannesburg-based art historian and writer Nicola Kritzinger was in London for the art binge, and very kindly agreed to be our eyes and ears at the fair. Nicola is one part of the duo behind the online digital arts residency Floating Reverie (read our interview with them both here.) 

Below is Nicola’s account of this year’s London 1:54 Art Fair: 

The 1:54 fair was well attended and buzzing with folk from all over the world. Overheard at the opening was a mix of languages appropriate to the large African diaspora represented by the galleries exhibiting.

Upon entering the West wing of Somerset House one was immediately presented with a work by El Anatsui hanging on the wall. Setting expectations high at the entrance was not entirely misguided. Viewers were confronted with some exceptional examples of contemporary art, from globally situated galleries representing African artists.

El Anatsui - Fresh and Fading Memories - Part V - 2007 - BASMOCA - Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art - Aluminum strips and copper wire - 500 x 420 cm
El Anatsui – Fresh and Fading Memories – Part V – 2007 – BASMOCA (Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art)
El Anatsui - Fresh and Fading Memories - Part V - 2007 - BASMOCA - Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art - Aluminum strips and copper wire - 500 x 420 cm - Detail
El Anatsui – Fresh and Fading Memories – Part V – 2007 – BASMOCA (Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art) – Detail

Oddly enough, this opening felt quite a lot like a fair opening back in South Africa. There were a lot of familiar faces at the opening considering the large number of South African art galleries exhibiting at the fair such as GALLERY AOP, Afronova, CIRCA Gallery, Johans Borman Fine Art and the Qubeka Bead Studio. There were also a number of familiar international galleries that have exhibited at the Joburg Art Fair, and a lot of South Africans spending some time in London that popped in for some art, wine and hobnobbing.

The fair was a treat with art world heavyweight artists like Steven Cohen represented, glittering work by Chéri Samba and an installation by Meschac Gaba. There were also many young artists represented, as well as a long list of South African artists including Lyndi Sales, Athi-Patra Ruga, Johannes Phokela and Lawrence Lemaoana.

Johannes Phokela at Art on Paper
Johannes Phokela at Art on Paper
Yellowwoods Art & Qubeka Bead Studio: right to left - Wayne Barker - Liza Grobler
Yellowwoods Art & Qubeka Bead Studio: left to right – Wayne Barker, Liza Grobler
Joel Andrianomeariosa from Madagascar at Sabrina Amrani Gallery Spain
Joel Andrianomeariosa from Madagascar at Sabrina Amrani Gallery Spain

The space itself was interesting. The Neoclassical Somerset House is an architectural monolith that fits well into the historic London landscape and provides an ironic backdrop for an African art fair as a prior seat of British Government. I’m not so certain the space was challenged or reclaimed in any way, with a very straightforward curatorial approach to a space the catalogue refers to as an ‘unrivalled historic building’, nor does the catalogue text engage with the space.

Somerset House doesn’t provide the usual neutral white cube space for exhibitors, but instead small, rather cramped rooms, with large arched windows, radiators and marble fireplaces. I couldn’t help but cynically wonder whether a more neutral space could have been found for an African art fair, or at least that the space be engaged with for what it is, instead of merely occupied. As a commercial fair, as with all fairs of this nature, it is not the intention to provoke or to stir, but to sell and represent, although engagement would have been welcome. The space makes the fair feel more ‘fringe’ than it should and I think it deserves a little more of the Frieze-like pomp and circumstance.

Hassan Hajjaj Marques Toliver 2009 - Digital Photograph & Zak Ove - DP2 2015 - plywood frame with sacking crouche doilies at Vigo Gallery London
Hassan Hajjaj Marques Toliver 2009 (left) & Zak Ove – DP2 2015 – (right) at Vigo Gallery London
Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan: left to right - Francois-Xavier Gbre - Yo-Yo Gonthier - Cheikh Ndiaye - Jems Koko Bi
Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan: left to right – Francois-Xavier Gbre, Yo-Yo Gonthier, Cheikh Ndiaye, Jems Koko Bi

The art itself was on par with the contemporary Frieze exhibits insomuch as that there was some rather questionable objects, some acceptable and aesthetically pleasing work alongside some really spectacular, engaging and well-executed artworks. The latter were reportedly snapped up by museum buyers for the likes of the Centre Pompidou collection in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I would encourage anyone who goes to London for the Frieze fairs to attend 1:54, next year will be their fourth year and it provides an interesting overview of what is commercially popular art from some African countries.

1-54.com/london

Athi-Patra Ruga at In Situ Gallery Paris
Athi-Patra Ruga at In Situ Gallery Paris
Ebrahim Mahama at Apalazzo Gallery Italy
Ebrahim Mahama at Apalazzo Gallery Italy
Herve Youmbi at Axis Gallery New York
Herve Youmbi at Axis Gallery New York
Aboudia - Untitled 2011 - Mixed Media on Paper - 24 x 32 cm at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury - Abidjan
Aboudia – Untitled 2011 at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan
Zak Ove at Vigo Gallery London
Zak Ove at Vigo Gallery London
Yazid Oulab - Crystal at Selma Feriani Gallery
Yazid Oulab – Crystal at Selma Feriani Gallery
Yazid Oulab  at Selma Feriani Gallery
Yazid Oulab at Selma Feriani Gallery
Steven Cohen - Silkscreen Print and mixed media at Afrinova
Steven Cohen at Afrinova South Africa
Circa Gallery London - Opening Night: Ricky Dyaloyi - Angus Taylor - Nigel Mullins - Lyndi Sales
Opening night – Circa Gallery London: Ricky Dyaloyi, Angus Taylor, Nigel Mullins, Lyndi Sales
Bright Eke at Axis Gallery New York
Bright Eke at Axis Gallery New York
Jebila Okongwu at Axis Gallery New York
Jebila Okongwu at Axis Gallery New York
Herve Youmbi at Axis Gallery New York
Herve Youmbi at Axis Gallery New York
Eric Pina
Eric Pina
Yo-Yo Gonthier - Sunlight do you believe me now series 2015 at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan
Yo-Yo Gonthier – Sunlight do you believe me now series 2015 at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan
Cheikh Ndiaye - Garage Mecanique at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan
Cheikh Ndiaye – Garage Mecanique at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Abidjan
Right to left - Eric Pina from Senegal & Mario Macilau from Mozambique
Right to left – Eric Pina from Senegal & Mario Macilau from Mozambique
Magnin-A Gallery Paris: left to right - Felipe Branquinho - Joel Andrianomearisoa - Nathalie Boutte
Magnin-A Gallery Paris: left to right – Felipe Branquinho, Joel Andrianomearisoa, Nathalie Boutte
Sonia Boyce at Selma Feriani Gallery - Detail
Sonia Boyce at Selma Feriani Gallery – Detail
Sonia Boyce at Selma Feriani Gallery
Sonia Boyce at Selma Feriani Gallery
Amel Bennys at Selma Feriani Gallery
Amel Bennys at Selma Feriani Gallery
Joel Andrianomeariosa from Madagascar at Sabrina Amrani Gallery Spain
Joel Andrianomeariosa at Sabrina Amrani Gallery Spain
Lina Ben Rejeb at Selma Feriani Gallery - Detail
Lina Ben Rejeb at Selma Feriani Gallery – Detail
Lina Ben Rejeb at Selma Feriani Gallery
Lina Ben Rejeb at Selma Feriani Gallery

All words and photos by Nicola Kritzinger. 

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