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A Contemporary African Art Fair Arrives in New York

The entrance to 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The check-in desk at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It may at first thought seem odd that the newest addition to Frieze Week in New York is a fair devoted to contemporary African art. How could one expect to cover the ground of a whole continent in a single art fair, and an exceptionally small one at that? Is “African art” a useful category?

But the bigger problem may be that it doesn’t seem all that strange, accustomed as we are, in the US, to seeing the many countries of Africa stereotyped and lumped together as one vast, general place. That contradiction is in fact built into the name of the art fair: 1:54, whose numbers stand, respectively, for the one continent of Africa and the 54 countries it contains. “To share and give visibility to the diversity of the African art scene,” is how 1:54 founder Touria El Glaoui described the goal of the fair to Hyperallergic — “to be a player in the international scene.”

The fair seen from above (click to enlarge)
The fair seen from above (click to enlarge)

El Glaoui, the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, founded 1:54 two years ago in London, timing the first edition to Frieze Week there. She is now testing the waters of New York, though it sounds like it was something of a last-minute decision: El Glaoui told me she had six months to plan the fair’s trans-Atlantic voyage. 1:54 landed on the shores of Red Hook and is moored for the weekend at the multipurpose arts center Pioneer Works.

The fair features only 16 galleries, half of them from Africa and half from other countries but showing work that falls under the admittedly vague rubric of “African.” The layout is standard, as far as fairs go: big, tall white walls carve up the cavernous industrial space into pristine booths. These mini-showrooms are quite big, a decision that gives the art plenty of room to breathe but also has the unfortunate effect of eating up any potential free space on the building’s ground floor — so that you may end up feeling (as I did, at times) like you are little more than a murine aesthete lost in an art market maze.

Happily, the art you’re trapped with is largely very good and largely by people whose names are not yet well worn in the art world. “It’s also about where the artists are in their career,” El Glaoui told me. El Anatsui, for instance, isn’t at 1:54 because he “doesn’t need to be here.” William Kentridge is, his work greeting you immediately upon arrival (at the booth of David Krut Projects), but along with Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta (two of the most famous photographers in African history, both at Magnin-A gallery), Kentridge is an exception. 1:54 is mostly focused on bringing new artists to the attention of New York audiences.

Peter Clarke, "Black Cowboy" (1982), gouache collage on paper, 50.5 x 65 cm
Peter Clarke, “Black Cowboy” (1982), gouache collage on paper, 50.5 x 65 cm, on view at SMAC Gallery’s booth (click to enlarge)

New doesn’t necessarily mean young, and one of my favorite discoveries of the fair was the work of Peter Clarke, a towering South African artist who died last year at the age of 85. Clarke, who was forcibly uprooted from his home when he was young because of apartheid, made art his whole life but only received recognition “later, due to the political situation,” explained Marelize van Zyle, associate director of SMAC Gallery. “He depicted Cape Colored life, life in that community.” Zyle brought two pieces of Clarke’s work that she thought would resonate with American audiences: one, a gentle gouache showing a branch of KFC in a poor Cape Town neighborhood in the 1980s (the company was one of the only international chains that did not pull out of the country during the economic boycott), the other a brighter imaginary scene inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Featuring a stylish black cowboy painted in gouache, the work also contains a collaged Jack Daniels label at the center, on which Clarke hand-wrote a text that ends: “Only, the westerns never show that in real life the cowboy hero was sometimes a Black Man … ”

Wall of photos from Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall's studio at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)
Wall of photos from Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall’s studio at Axis Gallery’s booth (click to enlarge)

Perhaps predictably, questions about identity ripple through the fair, connecting much of the work on view and coloring many of the conversations I had when I visited. Axis Gallery‘s wall of dazzling photographic portraits by Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall — who established what Axis curator Gary van Wyk called “the first color photography studio in Africa” in 1961 in Durban, South Africa — resonates with a number of more contemporary works at the booth of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, among them Fabrice Monteiro‘s sumptuous photograph of a woman dressed as a signare, as the lawful wives of colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries were called. These little-remembered women were “covered with fashion and jewelry” and “extremely emancipated,” said Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, the gallery’s director. Hanging catty-corner in her booth is an arresting black-and-white, composite self-portrait by Ayana V. Jackson that features six versions of the artist dressed in different Victorian outfits and posed together as in a family photo. “If, at the time of slavery, it were egalitarian and equal — if there were no slavery, what sorts of costumes would the black body be wearing?” Ibrahim-Lenhardt asked, by way of explaining the impetus for the work.

Work by Fabrice Monteiro at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery's booth, showing a signore
Work by Fabrice Monteiro at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery’s booth, showing a woman dressed as a ‘signare’
Work by Ayana V. Jackson at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Work by Ayana V. Jackson at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Billie Zangewa, "Ma vie en rose" and "Homecoming" (both 2015), silk tapestries, at Afronova's booth (click to enlarge)
Billie Zangewa, “Ma vie en rose” and “Homecoming” (both 2015), silk tapestries, at Afronova’s booth (click to enlarge)

Both of these pieces, in turn, seem to be distant cousins of a couple of beautifully assured silk self-portrait tapestries by Billie Zangewa, at Afronova’s booth, and more closely related to a series of costumed self-portraits by Omar Victor Diop at Magnin-A. For the project, Diop researched “Africans sent to various parts of the world, either as slaves or as representatives of their kingdoms,” many of them since “left out of the history books.” He then found images of them and photographed himself modeled after them, adding the occasional contemporary touch like a soccer ball or a whistle. The series is indebted in equal parts to Kehinde Wiley and to Keïta, but the results possess a potent agency that the works of Diop’s predecessors lack.

Omar Victor Diop's series at Magnin-A's booth (click to enlarge)
Omar Victor Diop’s series at Magnin-A’s booth (click to enlarge)

“As African artists, of course we don’t want to be locked in an African ghetto,” Diop replied when I asked him about the idea of an African art fair. “But if you don’t speak, you let others define what an African artist is. You’ll always be from somewhere. You can’t change your Africanness, but you can change the perception.”

Those remarks contrasted sharply with the words of Lavar Munroe, an artist showing disturbing and surreal collaged renderings of animal and human figures with NOMAD Gallery. “I’ve always resisted the label” of African artist, he said, explaining that he initially refused to participate in the fair but was persuaded by his dealer. “Why the fascination [with African art]?” Munroe asked. “I think it has to do with the notion of the other, exhibiting the other.”

Work by Lavar Munroe at NOMAD Gallery
Work by Lavar Munroe at NOMAD Gallery (click to enlarge)

Most of the gallerists I spoke with (who were almost exclusively white) seemed far more at ease with the term, probably because they know that successful selling generally requires successful branding. But perhaps one benefit of using such a broad term as “African” to describe a category of art is that it can be widely applied, so that Voice Gallery founder Rocco Orlacchio — who told me, “I don’t very much like labels” — could show work made in Kenya by a Japanese artist living in Morocco (a country that itself raises more questions of identity because of its location in the north of the continent and its uniquely hybrid culture).

“In the most ideal world, you would have no 1:54,” El Glaoui acknowledged, “but the truth is 0.05% of African artists are represented anywhere at any given moment.

“The best death of 1:54 will be that you don’t need it anymore.”

A sculpture by Nidhal Chamekh at Primo Marella Gallery
The booth of Primo Marella Gallery, with a sculpture by Nidhal Chamekh in the foreground
Lawrence Lemaoana, "I didn't join the struggle to be poor" (2015), fabric and embroidery, 155 x 110 cm, at Afronova's booth
Lawrence Lemaoana, “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor” (2015), fabric and embroidery, 155 x 110 cm, at Afronova’s booth
Conrad Botes drawing his installation at Bennett Contemporary
Conrad Botes drawing his installation at Bennett Contemporary’s booth
Olu Amoda, "Medium Sunflower iii" (2014), blind revert, steel belt, mild still pipe, 52 x 52 in, at the booth of Art Twenty One
Olu Amoda, “Medium Sunflower iii” (2014), blind revert, steel belt, mild still pipe, 52 x 52 in, at the booth of Art Twenty One
Work by Eric van Hove and Younes Baba-Ali at VOICE Gallery
Work by Eric van Hove (foreground and middle) and Younes Baba-Ali (background) at Voice Gallery’s booth
Work by Edson Chagas at A Palazzo Gallery's booth
Work by Edson Chagas at A Palazzo Gallery’s booth
Looking down on one of the booths
Looking down on one of the booths
Sammy Baloji, "Raccord #5," at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)
Sammy Baloji, “Raccord #5,” at Axis Gallery’s booth (click to enlarge)
The entrance to 1:54 art fair
The entrance to 1:54 art fair

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 17.

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