The prestigious contemporary art fair’s successful first landing on African soil

As the world wakes up to the diverse and dynamic art being created across Africa, the continent’s art fair market is also multiplying. With ART X Lagos, FNB Joburg and Investec Cape Town art fairs already annual highlights, recently it was the turn of Marrakech to join in as the city launched the first edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair on the continent. As a place already geared up for a heady mix of beauty and luxury, it more than stepped up to the mark.

Started by Touria El Glaoui in 2013, 1-54 is dedicated to showing art from Africa and its diaspora. With regular London and New York outposts, the inaugural edition of 1-54 Marrakech was an auspicious moment for the fair, not only as the realisation of a long held dream for El Glaoui “to have a well-founded presence on the African continent”, but being herself Moroccan (the daughter of the preeminent Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui), it marked a sort of a homecoming also. Set in the grand La Mamounia hotel - a “legendary palace” set by the city’s Medina - the fair welcomed 4,000 local and international visitors, presenting 17 leading galleries who together showcased over 50 artists. A smaller and therefore more considered show than its UK and US counterparts, highlights included beautiful textile works by the leading Malian artist Abdoulaye Konate at Blain/Southern (marking the European gallery’s first showing at the fair) and striking photographs from Ivorian Joana Choumali at Loft Art Gallery’s booth (one of three participating Moroccan galleries).

The fair has also become known as a platform for dialogue and exchange through the accompanying Forum talks programme, here curated by Moroccan curator and co-director of Dar al-Ma’mûn, Omar Berrada. Taking as its theme Always Decolonise, the Marrakech event sustained 1-54’s reputation for not being scared to engage with difficult art world discourses by bringing together artists and cultural producers to highlight the importance of “unlearning Eurocentrism” in order to look towards new futures.

Outside of the fair, the energy bought by 1-54 set the already buzzing city alight – significant local galleries such as Le Comptoir des Mines held opening evenings, whilst Ghanaian artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland entranced her audience with a performance in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. Musée Yves Saint-Laurent Marrakech and Fondation Montresso* also opened their doors while the MACAAL museum held its official launch (following a soft launch in 2016). The space, an independent contemporary art museum from Moroccan art collectors Alami Lazraq and his son Othman Lazraq, is dedicated to the promotion of African art, particularly from within Morocco and its neighbouring countries. Alongside a photography exhibition entitled Africa Is No Island featuring around 40 emerging and established artists working from an African perspective, the museum also displayed a carefully curated selection of works from it’s permanent collection. A particular highlight was an installation piece from the Marrakech-based collective Zbel Manifesto, an immersive work entitled Un diner en ville (2018) that reimagined discarded rubbish from the city in a surreal dinner party setting.

Outside of these programmed events, the whole of Marrakech became an art gallery for the weekend. It was easy to stumble upon a myriad of exhibitions bursting from almost every corner of the city’s labyrinthine souks. Hassan Hajjaj’s Riad Yima displayed Casablanca, Not The Movie, works by photographer Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui Ismaili challenging conventional narratives of Morocco’s largest city. There was also a collaborative artist-led exhibition at Riad Les Yeux Bleux, hosted by Little Africa and the collective Des Gosses, called Marrakech Off the Tracks. The show brought together a group of artists working from Africa and the diaspora including Adelaide Damoah (UK), Abdelghafour Benbadryeff (Morrocco) and Williams Chechen (Nigeria) who had lived and worked together to create art - another testament to the collaborative spirit of creativity arising from the continent today.

Marrakech as a city itself can often feel like an artwork, so the addition of 1-54 has only opened it even further to the cultural possibilities of its magical nooks and crannies. See you next year.

Published on 16/03/2018