Art

The Tantalizing Photographic Figure at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

At the fair, you can trace visual conversations happening across regions of Africa and their diasporic communities.

Fabrice Monteiro, “Little Ninny” (2017) (presented by MAGNIN-A, Paris, France)

1–54 Contemporary African Art Fair, held this year at Industria in the West Village, gathers together an impressive bevy of thoughtful work from and about the African diaspora. With over 70 artists showcased, the 24 participating galleries hail from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Martinique, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Belgium, France, Portugal, Turkey, the UK, and the US.

Walking through the diverse displays, you can trace clear conversations happening across regions of Africa and their diasporic communities. Certain themes repeat themselves — particularly religion, sexuality, beauty, and family — and there is an evident interest in texture and pattern.

This year’s edition, curated by Black Chalk & Co. (an art collective founded by Zimbabwean artists Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu) is named Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, a direct reference to a short story on colonialism in 1970s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by Yvonne Vera. The fair pamphlet reads: “Vera recognized the potential of the literary text to function as an important means of appropriating, inverting, and challenging dominant means of representation and colonial ideologies.” This year’s fair takes this challenge to task with visual artworks, in order to “understand and make visible black realities and imaginaries.”

Seydou Keïta (presented by Danziger Gallery, New York)
Seydou Keïta (presented by Danziger Gallery, New York)

New York’s Danziger Gallery put together an impressive photographic display, most prominently featuring Malian legend Seydou Keïta, who is often cited alongside Malick Sidibé as one of the major photographic influences in Mali during the 20th century. Though their creative studio portraits are often conflated, the two have distinct styles — Keïta’s career began much earlier and lean towards editorial. However, their similar styles of photography have defined West African portraiture for generations, and continue to have an influence on the photographers of the African diaspora. The Keïta images on display make clear a number of intriguing beauty trends of the times — most notably, all of the women, girls, and even some infants had sharp, thin, elongated eyebrows drawn on in black.

Photos of Black beauty pageants by Raphael Albert (presented by Danziger Gallery, New York)
JD “Okhai Ojeikere” (presented by Danziger Gallery, New York)

Across the Atlantic Ocean in the United Kingdom, Black beauty pageants revealed other trends. Raphael Albert’s images of “Miss Black and Beautiful” pageants in the UK in the 1970s showcase updated beauty trends for Black women — some bore relaxers, and others rocked afros. Danzinger’s all-photographic display paired Keïta with images by the Grenadan artist, as well as Nigerian photographer JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere, whose images show different hair trends, showcasing the malleability and potential for Black hair as art.

Kyle Meyer, from the series Interwoven (presented by Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)
Kyle Meyer, from the series Interwoven (detail) (presented by Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

At Yossi Milo, I was introduced to the jaw-dropping, laborious work of Kyle Meyer. Meyer’s massive creations take portraits of Black men donning wax-cloth headwraps traditionally worn by women, and weaves these images with strips of the same fabric. The artworks are hard to discern but glorious to look at; they are simultaneously tapestry, sculpture, photograph, and collage, and the sitters gaze at you with an earnest presence.

Gelatin silver prints by Sanlé Sory (presented by Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)
Hassan Hajjaj, “Khadija” (2010), (presented by Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

Also on display by Yossi Milo were the visually enticing, bright works of Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan portraitist who hybridizes photography and sculpture to bring together pop culture, consumerism, and North African culture. Sanlé Sory’s studio portraits of Burkina Faso add to the fair’s wide presence of West African studio photography from the 20th century.

Lebohang Kganye, “Ke Lefa Laka/Her Story” (2012-2013) (presented by Afronova, Johannesburg, South Africa)
John Liebenberg, “Weekend at Okombe” (1984), handmade print on fibre based paper (presented by Afronova, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Johannesburg gallery Afronova had an intriguing selection of images. Lebohang Kganye, a 29-year-old South African artist, recreated endearing images of her mother’s youth. John Liebenberg’s photos of Black South African individuals in the 1980s, while the nation was still embroiled in its decades-long apartheid, display a clear reference to the studio genre.

Gelatin silver prints by Malick Sidibé, dating the 1960s and ’70s (presented by MAGNIN-A, Paris, France)
Gelatin silver prints by Seydou Keïta, dating the 1940s through ’60s (presented by MAGNIN-A, Paris, France)
J. D.’Okhai Ojeikere (1968–1974) (presented by MAGNIN-A, Paris, France)

Parisian gallery MAGNIN-A brought together a trifecta of vintage prints by Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and J. D.’Okhai Ojeikere. While Sidibé’s images point toward the groovy male fashion trends happening in 1960s-7os Mali, Ojeikere again captured the sculptural beauty of West African women’s hairstyles.

Fabrice Monteiro, “Mr. Banania” (2017) (presented by MAGNIN-A, Paris, France)

MAGNIN-A also introduced me to Fabrice Monteiro, whose modern studio photographs subvert images of subordination by making them regal, and are titled for offensive stereotypes and slurs like “Mr. Banania” and “Little Ninny.” The Belgian-Beninese artist takes on an unusual fantasy — the visual cues of distinct lips (which are white, rather than red, in the black-and-white images), circus gear, and cotton plants — and asks how and why these offensive symbols got their power.

In short, I was dazzled by the photographic figure at 1-54. And despite my proclivity toward the photography, there is also a rich selection of painting, sculpture, and other unique object art. Stunning paintings by Richard Mudariki are presented by Barnard Gallery (Cape Town, South Africa); DeBuck Gallery (New York, NY) is displaying one of Devan Shimoyama’s textured portraits, which are simultaneously a celebration and an ode to the silencing of queer culture in Black communities; and Jean-Ulrick Désert’s “Waters of Kiskeya” is a pearlescent map of colonialism, shown by 14N61W (Martinique). The fair as a whole feels like a modern retrospective on contemporary African art, with something for everyone.

Richard Mudariki (presented by Barnard Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa)
Devan Shimoyama, “A Tiny Tribute” (2019), oil, acrylic, Flashe, sequins, beads, lace, silk, flowers, collage, color pencil and glitter on canvas strecthed over panel, 48×36 inches, 121.9×91.4cm. (presented by DeBuck Gallery, New York)
Jean-Ulrick Désert, “Waters of Kiskeya” (2017), 9 panels (each 91x61cm) hand embellished (pearlescent acrylic paint, inks, watercolors) on vellum xerography paper (each embossed/stamped) 275x183cm (presented by 14N 61W, Martinique)

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Industria (775 Washington St, New York, NY) through May 5. This year’s edition was curated by Black Chalk & Co.

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