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