Growing up, one of my greatest joys was visiting my grandfather’s brownstone in Harlem. It was a haven where I could run in the streets in the summer and feel the most like myself, the most Black. Those memories began to come back to me as I walked to the ninth annual 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York. Across five floors of the Malt House in the Manhattanville Factory District on West 127th Street, 26 galleries from across Africa, Europe, and the United States are presenting the work of over 80 artists from Africa and its diaspora through this Sunday, May 21.

I was reminded of the rarity of Black attendance at art shows while visiting a gallery opening earlier this week. I was one of only three Black people present, and upon entering, the security guard asked if my name was on the list for the opening, but did not ask that of the White person who walked in after me. At 1-54, I was excited to immerse myself in African art in a neighborhood that makes me feel proud of my Blackness. Kimberly Drew, the co-author of Black Futures (2020), whom I promptly stopped on her way out of the show, pointed out the fact that this is rare in New York, as many art exhibition spaces are placed in the wealthiest neighborhoods, thus excluding many people of color. 

Chinaedu Nwadibia, “Show Me The Way (Zimuzo)” (2022), archival inkjet print, 50 x 66.66 inches (image courtesy Superposition Gallery)

When I approached Superposition Gallery owner Storm Ascher, who was exhibiting works by Chinaedu Nwadibia, a Nigerian photographer, sculptor, and writer, I was searching for refuge from the large crowd that flooded the first floor of the fair. At first glance, Nwadibia’s photographs and sculptures did not catch my eye, but as Ascher explained her work, my love for them grew. In “Show Me The Way (Zimuzo)” (2022), Nwadibia depicts a woman painted in a blue-ivory color holding braids of the same color in front of her face, sitting against greenery hanging from a wooden framed window similar to those on a church. The juxtaposition between Black women, who have the least amount of systemic power, and the church, which holds the majority of power in many countries, powerfully illustrates the lack of authority we have over our bodies and lives compared to the White men who are often centered by religious spaces.

Ascher explained that she had taken a new approach to exhibiting art: Instead of having a single brick-and-mortar space, her gallery is nomadic, so artists can participate in their chosen community. 

“Once galleries pop up in an arts district, they raise the rent for everything else around,” she told me. “Our idea was to not have a permanent space so that we’re sharing and not taking up room.” 

Booth of Kó Art Space with works by Mobolaji Ogunrosoye and Adébayo Bolaji (photo Briana Ellis-Gibbs/Hyperallergic)

Ascher’s observations made me feel seen as a Black woman. Many of the artworks on view at the fair also reminded me of why I enjoy going to art galleries: to engage with visuals that help me question my own principles and the world around me. I was drawn to “Adja” (2023) by Mobolaji Ogunrosoye, an artist based in Lagos; the abstract collage of a Black woman’s face made up of circular cutouts overlapped and placed on white paper burnt around the edges explores the ways in which Black women’s bodies are often objectified. Ghanaian artist Rufai Zakari’s “A Pose With Akuaba” (2022), a mixed-media piece made of plastic bags and food wraps, shows a Black woman holding her phone and taking a selfie. The presence of this imagery in a piece created using recycled materials made me reflect on whether taking selfies is a waste of time or adds value to my life. (I am still unsure.)

Opening day of the 1-54 fair with works by Roméo Mivekannin and Amadou Sanogo (photo Briana Ellis-Gibbs/Hyperallergic)

Moroccan-Belgian photographer Mous Lamrabat’s “The Forbidden Fruit” (2019) is inspired by René Magritte’s ​“The Son of Man” (1964), but instead of a White man in a suit with an apple in front of his face, a Black man in traditional African clothes with earrings and a neck tattoo stood before me. Lamrabat’s work, like Magritte’s, questions what we view as usual or customary in society, especially in the Western world.

Upon leaving the Malt House and falling in love with much of the art on display, I ran into Thomas E. Moore III, an art collector. He told me he thinks 1-54 could usher in “a new dawn.”

“There’s a creative energy that doesn’t just center Black Americans, but also the Black people across the diaspora,” Moore said. “I love that in Harlem, you can walk down 116th Street and there’s the African market, and there’s a touch of Kenya and Nairobi all over the place as well as the Caribbean, right? You have Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and it’s all here,” he said.

Personally, I am still skeptical that the cultural sector will ever be inclusive of Black artists, but the art on display at 1-54 made me feel as proud of my Blackness as I did playing outside of my grandfather’s brownstone. I hope that the art world will follow its lead.

Entrance to the Malt House in the Manhattanville Factory District on West 127th Street, where the 1-54 fair took place (photo by Eva Sakellarides, courtesy 1-54)

Briana Ellis-Gibbs is a writer and photo editor from Queens, NY, with a BA in English Literature from Howard University and an MA in journalism from Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY....