Con­tem­po­rary African Art Flour­ishes In Lon­don’s Som­er­set House

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - CONTRIBUTORS - From Sabo Kpade

EV­ERY art fair is a mar­ket­place like any other, and with an­nual edi­tions in Lon­don, Mar­rakech and New York, the 1-54 Con­tem­po­rary African Art Fair is also a trav­el­ling show with a fo­cus on com­merce over aes­thetic, so­cial or cul­tural im­por­tance - as it ought to be.

For this year’s Lon­don edi­tion (Oc­to­ber 47th) at Som­er­set House gal­leries, 130 emerg­ing and es­tab­lished artists from 43 gal­leries were cho­sen from 21 coun­tries across Europe, Africa, the Mid­dle East and North Amer­ica.

The vast ar­ray of artists work­ing in many dif­fer­ent medi­ums and from dis­tinct cul­tural back­grounds makes for a big bazaar that is also an ex­haus­tive ac­count of the art works be­ing made by African artists, a fair amount of which are Nige­rian in a long list that in­cludes Taiye Ida­hor (Ty­burn Gallery, UK), Zina Saro-wiwa (Ti­wani, UK) and Lakin Ogun­banwo (whatifthe­world Gallery, South Africa).

Modupe­ola Fadugba’s 1922 (Gallery 1957, Ghana) is from her very en­gross­ing se­ries which in­ter­ro­gates the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of shared wa­ter bod­ies like pools and (not men­tioned but by ex­ten­sion, beaches).

Based on on-site re­search with a team of geri­atric syn­chro­nised swim­mers in New York called “Har­lem Honeys and Bears”, Ms Fadugba has el­e­gantly mar­ried ab­stract de­pic­tions with re­al­is­tic im­ages of her sub­jects over can­vas she has treated with roughly hewn card­board and burns to give dis­tinct tex­ture and colour whose com­bined ef­fect is that of af­fect­ing fragility es­pe­cially when her sub­jects are the el­derly.

What to the un­in­formed viewer might be works of frail beauty, with a lit­tle back­ground in­for­ma­tion, be­comes a laud­able in­sis­tence of the vi­tal­ity by a sec­tion of any pop­u­la­tion that is oth­er­wise marginalised. Peju Ala­tise‘s Death And The King’s Alaso

Ofi is a work of high imag­i­na­tion and ex­e­cu­tion that cri­tiques the de­cay of the Nige­ria’s tex­tile in­dus­try by the unchecked im­por­ta­tion of Chi­nese prod­ucts which has lead to the clo­sure of man­u­fac­tur­ing plants like Aswani, ABC wax and UNTL - and the loss of liveli­hoods by in­dige­nous cot­ton farm­ers, weavers, tai­lor’s, fash­ion and in­te­rior de­sign­ers.

The work it­self de­fies easy de­scrip­tion; each of the three metal pan­els (with just two on dis­play at the fair) are cov­ered with equally shaped squares that de­pict a net­work of im­ageries and minia­tures that in­clude wax prints and looms, the ma­jor­ity of which is the red­dish-brown of rusted brass giv­ing the work a stark beauty.

Based on the in­tri­cate metal and wood join­ery, as well as the painted prints, Death And The King’s Alaso-ofi is very much a “sculp­tured-paint­ing” and the ti­tle’s heavy al­lu­sion to Wole Soyinka’s most ma­jes­tic play “Death And The King’s Horse­man” goes a long way to em­pha­sise Ala­tise’s theme of sus­tain­ing long-held cul­tural prac­tices. But Ala­tise’s own words re­main stronger than in­ter­pre­ta­tions and al­lu­sions: “you get this coun­ter­feit shit from China and they’re still us­ing de­signs made by lo­cal de­sign­ers mak­ing it nos­tal­gic for you to buy this crap. I’m not diss­ing im­por­ta­tion, I’m say­ing it’s not sus­tain­able”.

Co-founded In 2015 by Dolly Kola-ba­lo­gun and Ab­dul­lahi Umar, Retro Gallery is one of two Nige­rian gal­leries (along with SMO Con­tem­po­rary Art) at this year’s fair. Based in Abuja, the fast grow­ing gallery pre­sented three artists - Duke Asidere, Adetomiwa Gbadebo and Uche Okpa

Iroha- in its first ever ap­pear­ance at the Lon­don edi­tion of 1-54 Con­tem­po­rary Fair.

Okpa-iroha’s strik­ing black and white pho­tographs about life in main­land La­gos is from his “Iso­la­tion Se­ries” which, in the words of Joshua Jonathan, head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Retro has “sold quite well” and does in­deed show­cases the great eye that has earned him the Sey­dou Keita Prize for pho­tog­ra­phy (in 2015 and 2016). Asidere’s drawn por­trai­ture are en­er­getic de­con­struc­tions that show a taste­ful par­tially to shades of yel­low and are pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the em­pow­er­ment of women. The four day fair is also a tale of dis­cov­ery for in­ter­na­tional art buy­ers and lovers who may know La­gos to be the coun­try’s hub for fine art and Abuja for folk art.

The 1-54 fair goes a long way to ad­dress the age-old prob­lem of poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion of African artists in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets and es­pe­cially in Lon­don which re­mains a global cap­i­tal for art and is a con­ve­nient des­ti­na­tion for gal­leries from ma­jor Euro­pean and Amer­i­can cities.

Some prob­lems still per­sists. Works of tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity and sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural im­por­tance by artist from the African con­ti­nent still fetch con­sid­er­able lower amounts com­pared to those by Euro­pean and Amer­i­can artists. This is acutely felt by a gallery like Retro which is based in Nige­ria and sells works by artists who live and work in the coun­try.

“Part of the so­lu­tion is hav­ing African owned gal­leries, African owned ex­hi­bi­tions, African pro­moted shows” says Ms Kola-ba­lo­gun cit­ing Art X La­gos as an ex­am­ple. Started by Tokini Peter­side and now in its third year, Art X La­gos is now Africa’s lead­ing art fair and will this year run from Novem­ber 2-4th.

What is un­doubted is that the ex­cite­ment and re­gard gen­er­ated by all edi­tions of 1-54 Con­tem­po­rary African Art Fair will con­tinue to be valu­able in prop­a­gat­ing works by the con­ti­nent’s artists.

Sabo Kpade @Sabo_k­pade

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