Ten years after the opening of the first contemporary African art fair 1-54, it is safe to say that the landscape of creation has changed radically, partly thanks to it. While it was still being held on stage at Somerset House (London, UK, October 13-16) on 10the edition of the event created by the Moroccan Touria El Glaoui, everyone agrees in recognizing the influence that the fair has had on the art market: most renowned artists, best-established and most attentive galleries on the continent, attentive and present institutions…
“The initial idea, ten years ago, was to create a platform for artists from the continent and the diaspora. Today, they benefit from more attention, their talents are better appreciated, they are really part of the market and the art ecosystem”, says the daughter of the painter Hassan El Glaoui.
Reason to be
At the time of the creation of 1-54, while some artists were still refusing – they no longer do so much – to participate in a fair described as a “ghetto”, Touria El Glaoui affirmed that he would have accepted his challenge the day his fair was already would have no reason to exist, to them African artists and galleries are fully integrated into major contemporary art gatherings like Fiac, Frieze Art Fair, Art Basel and others.
A decade later, many African artists or artists of African origin are present at these events, but 1-54 still exists. “We are far from dead,” says El Glaoui with a smile. But that’s still my way of seeing things! »
Why not Asia?
The last two years, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, have forced the 1-54 team (seven full-time people and many volunteers) to bow down and cancel their Marrakech edition. “We had moments of doubt, says Touria El Glaoui, because we work in events and we depend on the possibility of receiving public. But he allowed us to experiment and develop new partnerships, like the one we have with Christie’s auction house in Paris. During this difficult time, the support of Arts Council England has been a blessing. »
It is not in our philosophy to compete with African projects
Barely balanced, the Fair, which welcomes some 16,000 people, suffers from not having a major sponsor that allows it to ensure its programming for several editions. In any case, Touria El Glaoui indicates that the 2023 edition will take place from 1-54 in Marrakech (from February 9 to 12) and that the New York edition is still being discussed.
As for the more distant future, the plans are not yet clearly defined, but the team reflects on its long-term evolution: “The cultural landscape has changed a lot, with the appearance of other fairs dedicated to contemporary Africans. Perhaps we are considering developing larger fairs, or going where there are none. But it is not in our philosophy to compete with African projects. We are not going to go to Nigeria or South Africa, where there are already events, but we are looking at Asia where there are many collectors, a huge market and a lack of knowledge of the art that the African continent produces. It could be Hong Kong, but there is nothing written! »
For now, and to celebrate its tenth anniversary, it is a relatively wise edition of 1-54 which opened on October 13 on the banks of the Thames. The massive work of the Portuguese artist Grada kilomba (oh ship (“The boat”) installed in the courtyard of the Somerset house could have foreshadowed an engaged and demanding fair: 32 meters long, made up of 140 charred beams assembled in the shape of a slave ship and animated during a danced musical performance, O Barco returns to the deportations of which the continent was a victim.
However, among the 130 artists featured at the fair by some 50 exhibitors (including 16 African galleries), political demands and ideological commitments are more subtle, with work on subject matter and materials occupying more space than usual. The most striking thing about this edition is, without a doubt, the profusion of portraits.
“We have noticed this trend towards figurative portraiture in recent years, confirms Touria El Glaoui. Work on black identity is doing well among collectors, as can be seen with the success of Ghanaian painter Amoako Boaffo, whose works sell well at auction. » In fact, his painting lemon swimsuit was purchased for £675,000 on February 13, 2020 at Phillips! And in the sections from 1 to 54, it is above all the portraits of women that attract attention. Thus, the Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery presents an “individual exhibition” of the Ethiopian painter Tewodros Hagos: while his country is sinking into civil war, he makes portraits of women of great classicism, respectful of his dignity. “What interests me is exploring how our perception of women is limited by clichés and preconceived ideas about what a woman should or shouldn’t be,” says the artist.
And in a way, the fair offers many portraits of women that defy clichés. Note in particular the Afrofuturist portraits of the South African Manyaku Mashilo (SMO Contemporary Art), the albino portraits of his compatriot Athenkosi Kwinana, or the amazing female sculpture by Zak Ové.
The examples could be multiplied, but the most subversive artist in this field is undoubtedly the Moroccan Ghizlane Sahli who, on the wall of her gallery Sakhile&Me, presents a series of 28 vulvas embroidered in bright colors. Between the formal beauty and the powerful symbolism, she finds a striking point of imbalance. And in this notable presence of female portraiture, Touria El Glaoui was not left out: she herself wore a dress designed by the South African designer Thebe Magugu representing a woman from populated Tswana.