The brochure for the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair promised to send me off on a journey. “May you find points of contact and solidarity across continents, histories, bodies, and ideas,” wrote Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of this young fair that originated in London and is in its third year in New York at Pioneer Works. (Next year, it will also travel to Marrakech.) While relatively small, with only 19 galleries exhibiting, 1:54 can at times feel like a journey and vast, complex history lesson, in subjects from the decolonization of Africa to current sociopolitical oppression.
At the Johannesburg gallery Afronova’s booth, two joyously patterned red rectangles of fabric, known as kangas in South Africa, hang on the wall. But the history of the objects belies their beauty: before becoming president, Jacob Zuma was accused of raping a girl who was wearing this kind of kanga, and its sensual design was used as a justification for the crime. In addition, the artist Lawrence Lemaoana has sewed two phrases onto the fabrics in blue: “My Father Was a Garden Boy” and “Sew to Blues Suburban Bliss.” The first refers to Lemaoana’s own father, who, like other workers in South Africa who groom other people’s lawns, was called a “garden boy,” even if he were 70 years old. The second quotes a famous jazz tune in South Africa that alludes to the Soweto uprising, when police killed black schoolchildren who were protesting a measure to make Afrikaans the country’s official language. In his art, Lemaoana— who is black, Zulu, and a former player of rugby, a sport that does not welcome people of his skin color — shows that the beautiful and the tragic can often coexist.
Nearby, also in Afronova’s booth, the photographer Phumzile Khanyile has taken five curious self-portraits while dressed in her grandmother’s clothes, with whom she lives. Posing in a nightgown, with curlers in her hair, and in sparsely furnished rooms, Khanyile plays dress-up while her grandmother is away, as she ultimately disapproves of such antics. According to the gallerists, the artist would have loved to photograph landscapes and the outdoors, but has been scared to leave her house since she was attacked on the streets. Thus these photographs emerged from spending hours indoors, quietly searching for inspiration there.
Another standout booth is that of 50 Golborne, based in London. There, the Nigerian-born artist Olalekan Jeyifous, who studied architecture at Cornell University, has constructed a surreal model of an elevated house that alludes to the impractical Western influences in Nigerian building, such as high windows that allow the rain in too easily. In a separate wooden panel, Jeyifous playfully recreates the display case of a typical barbershop, carving out the shapes of combs and hairdos. Paired with him is the Beninese artist Emo de Medeiros, whose appliqués on fabric mash up various symbols, from allusions to ISIS to black power; scanning them with your Android yields cryptic snippets of text, like “Android touchy touchy” and “fire inside fire outside.”
The final standout is at the very back of the fair, in the booth of (S)ITOR / Sitor Senghor, which contains an enormous flag resembling that of the US. The usual color palette has been replaced with green, red, and yellow, and some of the stars have escaped and scattered over the stripes. Titled “Disunited States of Africa,” Nú Barreto’s piece is meant to evoke the pieces Africa was left in following decolonization; red stands for blood, yellow for anger, and green for hope. Pinned to the stars are clusters of amulets assembled from whatever Barreto finds in the streets, from shells to perfume bottles to praying beads.
Fairs aren’t always conducive to learning about the art on display; their purpose is, generally speaking, to sell, not teach. But you’ll find, especially at a smaller and friendlier one like 1:54, that there’s a lot to gain if you spend time with the works and ask questions, rather than speed on through.
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer St, Red Hook, Brookyln) through Sunday, May 7.