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.
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.
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.
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.
All words and photos by Nicola Kritzinger.