In conversation with the founding director of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair


When I first met Touria El Glaoui in 2013, her ambitious idea to establish London’s first art fair dedicated to contemporary African art was just taking shape. Today 1:54 is internationally renowned and has played a significant role in spearheading the art world’s growing dialogue around and investment in the continent’s diverse talents. With four successful London editions at Somerset House and two New York editions at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works under her belt, El Glaoui has also just announced plans to launch a third fair in Marrakech in February 2018.

Born in Morocco, El Glaoui is the daughter of celebrated artist Hassan El Glaoui. She studied in New York and worked in banking, wealth management and telecoms while co-curating major exhibitions of his work. Since deciding to channel her skills into 1:54, El Glaoui has been included in power polls by Forbes, Jeune Afrique and New African magazines among many other accolades. All this and she remains one of the most modest women in art. We met the day before she left London to prepare for this week’s third New York fair, which has made Nataal’s New African Photography II exhibition at Red Hook Labs one of its special projects. The fair has also joined forces with Red Hook Labs to bring the Malick Sidibé exhibition, The Eye Of Modern Mali, to New York. Time to talk…

So there are 19 participating galleries in NYC this year presenting over 60 young and established artists.
Yes and nine of those galleries are joining us for the first time at Pioneer Works, including Gallery 1957 from Accra, Room from Johannesburg and both 50 Goldborne and Ed Cross Fine Art from London. We’re also representing Angola for the first time with Mov’Art, which just opened in Luanda a few months ago and has a good programme. And of course our founding galleries, such as Jack Bell, Afronova and Magnin-A, are all back and making a huge effort to present something different, so I’m really happy.

You have some interesting solo shows and special projects in the mix too.
I'm always supportive of the solo shows. I’m keen to see Mohamed Melehi from Morocco who is presented by Taymour Grahne. He’s in his 80s and all his pieces are so colourful and full of shapes. It’s interesting that there is a whole generation of Moroccan artists who exhibited in New York in their 20s or 30s and are now having a renaissance. The 1:54 lounge has been designed by Senegal’s Ousmane Mbaye and will be where Aperture magazine launches its summer issue. We have Kenya’s Tahir Karmali, who is participating in a Pioneer Works residency, present his Paper/Work sculpture, and Hassan Hajjaj brings his Kesh Angels and My Rock Stars series.

How do your NYC and London audiences differ?
Obviously we have a stronger number of African American collectors in NYC, as well as curators from all of the different museums and academic institutions across the US, who don’t necessarily come to London. In New York too people see a lot of art fairs so 1:54 has to keep being extremely interesting for the audience here. So I’d say we don’t cater differently but we are aware of the reach that New York gives you in terms of visibility and access.

Koyo Kouoh, founder of Raw Material Company, Dakar, has been with 1:54 since the beginning, curated its always powerful Forum programme. This time, in her words, the talks with leading thinkers will “examine how strategies of resistance take shape and how a language capable of fighting back against a matrix of oppression can develop out of them… As systems of control contact our lives in more pervasive and affecting ways, militating against them remains critical: from addressing the new challenges presented by a volatile political climate to, as Raél Jero Salley puts it, ‘still-active legacies.’” So you’ll be having a very timely look at art making as activism and act of liberation.
When we originally discussed the theme the US election had just happened and all of the anti Trump demonstrations were happening, so it just made sense. I don't think there are so many platforms that are openly discussing these things in New York so it's quite interesting that we are able to bring out those topics with some very academic speakers.

You’re now entering five years of 1:54. How has it evolved?
The mission of 1:54 has always been to give accessibility and visibility to artists all over the continent and the diaspora. And I feel we are miles away from where we started in terms of engagement with the artists and institutions. The scene has made such amazing progress. I’m not saying that 1:54 is the only reason for this but it’s really the time when so much is happening in terms of African-focused exhibitions and fairs. I have a lot of optimism about where we are going with 1:54 and with the evolution of our collectors. So I feel that now our next step is to change the narrative. It’s not about a focus on Africa; it’s about having those artists mix up with other artists in the mainstream.

So success for you would mean the fair becomes redundant!
Well I have always said that if we get to the point where you don't need 1:54, we would have achieved what we wanted to achieve from the beginning. I’m quite curious about how we’re going to do things differently in Marrakech.

Hosting a fair on African soil – and in your home country – is super exciting.
There’s an opportunity in Marrakech to have 1:54 be a point of departure by inviting different regions, such as the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to participate in Africa. This is how I see it, not for the first year but in the long term. We have quite an important collector base from Africa for the moment but overall it is more international than African. So we want to make Marrakech an important platform that attracts foreign collectors to Africa because the city is so close to Europe. We’ll start small, like we did in London and New York, and stick to our core values, and develop from there.

How will 1:54 gel with the existing art scene in Marrakech?
There’s so much going on there with galleries such as Voice, Tindouf and Black On White and the new Yves Saint Laurent museum opening soon. There’s also the Marrakech Biennale coming up in 2018, which we hope will be happening during 1:54. We’ll only be inviting 15 galleries so can only accept one or two from Morocco but we’ll be getting local artists and spaces involved by doing studio visits. We’re also thinking of hosting a sculpture garden. My biggest hope is that 1:54 Marrakech becomes an art weekend with everyone in the city putting on their best shows.

Read about the Malick Sidibé show here.
Read about New African Photography II here.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, 5-7 May at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn

Nataal: New African Photography II, 4-14 May, and Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali, 4-7 May, at Red Hook Labs, Brooklyn

Words Helen Jennings

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Published on 01/05/2017