The sixth edi­tion of the 1-54 con­tem­po­rary African art fair in Lon­don chimed with the zeit­geist, bring­ing crit­i­cal en­gage­ment to the fore

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - By Dele Meiji in Lon­don

Freefall and fu­tures Dar­ing works and crit­i­cal en­gage­ment at the sixth 1-54 African art fair in Lon­don

SOME­TIMES, IT’S EASY TO FOR­GET that 1-54 Con­tem­po­rary African Art Fair is in­deed a fair, with a prin­ci­pal func­tion of buy­ing and sell­ing art. Such is its power as a space for Lon­don’s African cognoscenti to meet. Six years in, and it is now an es­tab­lished fea­ture on Lon­don’s cul­tural cal­en­dar, with the neo-clas­si­cal build­ing of Som­er­set House an ideal set­ting for the milling about and con­tem­pla­tion of art. This year ’s fair had 43 galler ies from coun­tries across Africa, Europe, the Mid­dle East and North Amer­ica, rep­re­sent­ing 130 artists. Amongst the African gal­leries, South Africa was most no­tice­ably rep­re­sented, and apart from the usual sus­pects – Nige­ria and South Africa – artists from Ethiopia, An­gola, Morocco and Tu­nisia also made a good

show­ing; on the whole the full range of the con­ti­nent was broadly rep­re­sented. In con­trast to the frenzy of Frieze, the cen­tral event of Lon­don’s art sea­son, 1-54 is a more serene af­fair; that seren­ity is achieved through ju­di­cious cu­ra­tion, which has es­tab­lished the fair as a space where dis­cern­ing in­ter­est in African art is met with an in­tel­li­gent en­gage­ment with the preoccupations of the con­ti­nent and a global elite in­ter­ested in its art. Un­der­scor­ing the fair’s at­tune­ment with the zeit­geist, Fo­rum, its pro­gramme of talks and per­for­mances, was de­vised by Ghana­ian-bri­tish writer and cu­ra­tor Ekow Eshun, en­gag­ing with the mo­tif of Freefall to in­ter­ro­gate ideas of black­ness. As Eshun writes in his in­tro­duc­tion: ‘Presently we are liv­ing in a pe­riod of overt hos­til­ity to ideas of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and cul­tural hy­brid­ity […] it is with this his­tor­i­cal and artis­tic ref­er­ence in mind that Fo­rum adopts Freefall as its start­ing point.’ In con­trast to the theme of the talks, the cen­tre­piece sculp­ture of this year’s fair, Ibrahim El-salahi’s Med­i­ta­tion Tree, solidly oc­cu­pied the cen­tral fore­court of Som­er­set House. Per­haps be­cause of Lon­don’s grey weather it had a less than strik­ing vis­ual ef­fect, though the artistry of the Su­danese old mas­ter’s foray into sculp­ture was not to be de­nied. De­spite the over­all aim of sell­ing, the fair was not short of vis­ually ar­rest­ing and provoca­tive art. The del­i­cacy and aes­thetic pri­macy of the work of artists such as Wura-natasha Ogunji (Nige­ria/ US), Lakin Ogun­banwo (Nige­ria), Mario Macilau (Mozam­bique), Adel El Siwi (Egypt) and Omar Vic­tor Diop (Sene­gal) ben­e­fited from the ar­chi­tec­ture of the

rooms at Som­er­set House. A no­table booth came from 50 Gol­borne (Lon­don), a gallery that is carv­ing a strong niche rep­re­sent­ing artists whose work strad­dles a fine line be­tween the ephemeral and the per­ma­nent.


The work of South African artist An­ton Kan­nemeyer, rep­re­sented by Hu­berty Breyne gallery and ex­plor­ing racial tropes with high-wire il­lus­tra­tions that sub­vert racist images, was cer­tainly a bold choice to present in a global cen­tre fraught with con­ver­sa­tions about race and iden­tity. Iden­tity and its per­mu­ta­tions, both com­plex and ridicu­lous, are also a theme for South African artist Athi-pa­tra Ruga, whose first ma­jor solo ex­hi­bi­tion in the UK is hosted at Som­er­set House in part­ner­ship with 1-54. En­ti­tled Of Gods, Rain­bows and Omis­sions and bring­ing to­gether three sem­i­nal bod­ies of work, the ex­hi­bi­tion con­tin­ues un­til 7 Jan­uary. This was one of an ex­pan­sive num­ber of spe­cial pro­jects, ex­plor­ing a wide range of ideas, from time­less­ness in the works of El-salahi to African po­lit­i­cal dis­unity and di­as­poric Africa’s re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence in the works of Bri­tish-ghana­ian Larry Achi­ampong. These no­tice­ably bold and ex­ploratory pro­jects are inch­ing to­wards what feels like a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of the en­ergy 1-54 has brought to African art glob­ally: the pos­si­bil­ity of a Lon­don based, Africa-fo­cused bi­en­nale, though that is not the stated aim. In­tro­duc­ing this year’s fair, which is ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of her fa­ther, the Moroc­can artist Has­san El Glaoui, Touria El Glaoui writes that for this edi­tion she was ‘moved to re­flect more in­tently on the fu­ture of con­tem­po­rary art of Africa, its di­as­pora and be­yond. Not so much what I en­vis­age the fu­ture to look like, but rather how 1-54 can bet­ter sup­port prac­tices of fu­tur­ing. Con­struct­ing the fu­ture(s) is an end­less pur­suit that re­quires a mea­sure of rad­i­cal “make be­lieve” … with each 1-54 edi­tion we are col­lec­tively build­ing pos­si­ble fu­tures that res­onate with Africa and its di­as­pora, as there was a time when pre­vail­ing no­tions of the fu­ture did not em­brace African con­tri­bu­tions.’ With 1-54 ex­pand­ing rapidly, and the sec­ond of its Moroc­can edi­tions sched­uled for early 2019, El Glaoui’s dis­tinct in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the present and fu­ture for African art will surely be em­braced by all those who wish Africa’s art mar­ket well.

Wura-natasha Ogunji, The Proof, an Un­der­sea Vol­cano, at­trac­tion, ex­trac­tion, dis­trac­tion - 2018, 50 Gol­borne

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