World class artists and critical examinations of urbanism ruled the fourth annual 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair London

1:54 has fast become a treasured exploration of contemporary African art worldwide, the name itself infused with the unified spirit of Africa’s 54 nations. Conceived by Touria El Glaoui in 2013, the fair just concluded its fourth annual chapter at London’s Somerset House following the second instalment of the New York edition in May (read our NYC review here). Before 1:54’s arrival there were limited numbers of artists of African descent whose works could move freely through the then disparate global markets and its unconnected spaces. Now 1:54’s consistent capture of two such important cultural capitals confirms its dynamic reach, which feeds into and nurtures the thriving communities of artists, galleries and curators in NY-LON and far beyond who thrust through the African art market in purposeful ways. Think Jack Bell in London, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, Art Twenty One in Lagos, Axis in NYC and SMAC in Cape Town. It is the staging of art fairs in more connected spaces that allow the artists’ works, visions and voices to become accessible.

Among the standout artists on display at 1:54 London was Joburg’s Nontsikelelo Veleko at Afronova Gallery with her documentation of urbanity and the flaming style of post-apartheid South Africans. The nascent yet important Gallery 1957, one of the fair’s most impactful exhibitors, presented its shape shifting Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s reworking of everyday objects - a process of channelling narratives in association with collective consciousness, personal or familial histories. Clottey’s work is a stunning form of material culture that leaves us impatiently awaiting the Accra gallery’s upcoming exhibition roster. The Tunisian born, Paris based Lina Ben Rejeb’s intricately designed works appear to be somewhat minimalistic, painterly and delicate at the outset yet under a closer inspection her processes could be viewed as somewhat clinical. The artist has procured aluminium, Perspex and lacquer, which combine to form her depiction and distortion of language, otherwise known as the changing layers and faces within communication. The fair also paid homage to the founders of contemporary art discourses by dedicating its book space to a curated selection of Revue Noire African photography books. Another special project came from Ibrahim El-Salahi, deemed by many as the grandfather of African modernism, who presented The Arab Spring Notebook - 46 ink drawings that form his artistic response to the Arab Spring as a devout Sudanese Muslim living in the diaspora.
1:54 acts as a chronicle of the cultural reinvention and critical examination that exists within contemporary African art. The fair’s complementary lectures programme FORUM, curated by Koyo Kouoh (Raw Material Company, Dakar) continues to spotlight the most relevant discourses of our time. Past FORUM series have featured renowned specialists including Simon Njami (artistic director for Dak’Art 2016), Bisi Silva (Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos) and the revered London-based artist Godfried Donkor. FORUM 2016 explored the lanes that affix art, photography, fashion, object and furniture design, architecture and urbanism - the progressively pertinent word that has flooded all recent political chatter involving Sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Bank predict the share of Africans living in urban areas will grow to 50 per cent by 2030 (up from 36 per cent in 2010) making the continent’s urbanisation rate the highest in the world. If decisive measures are taken, this trend can lead to economic growth, transformation and poverty reduction. But there are obstacles and issues to be faced. As urban sociologist Robert Park notes, “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire.”

Aaron Kohn, director of Museum of African Design (MOAD), Johannesburg, joined 1:54’s FORUM discussions this year to lead the debate on design thinking in Africa. “Will architects single-handedly design new ways of living? Probably not, but they do have an important lens for viewing Africa,” he says. Kohn met with architects Kunlé Adeyemi, Rashid Ali and artist Dris Ouadahi to dissect the way that we perceive the continent. A comment from Adeyemi provides a summative note of the FORUM session Why Design Matters. His ethos is “to create conditions which enable us to think differently, to build differently and to live differently.”

The full events programme demonstrated the influence and confluence of African perspectives in contemporary art, design and diverse aesthetics across the world. Gallery 1957 curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s ANO’s book launch and film screening, Agbako: Untold, served as the perfect close to a truly moving four-day event. Ayim guided audiences through her extensive career as an academic, filmmaker, writer and at times, saviour of forgotten, unguarded and unpreserved African cultures. She was heartfelt in saying that art is a “mirror to see and understand our deeper selves.” Ayim’s work thwarts singularly sided representations and voices that occupy mainstream spaces, holding hostage the right to document histories. So what can be done? Kohn has an answer: “Africa needs more museums and public art. Not as craft or beautification but as site-specific work that can turn our city streets, spaces and walls into exhibitions.”

Speaker quotes are courtesy of 1:54 FORUM London 2016


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