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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.”
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.
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 … ”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”