The 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House in London, between Thursday 5th and Sunday 8th October. Now in its fifth year, the event featured contributions by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, presented alongside a programme of stimulating talks and panel discussions led by arts scholars, curators, gallerists and cultural commentators drawn from around the world.
Building on the successes of previous editions of 1:54, shown in London, New York and Morocco since 2013, this edition provided access to a broad range of new works by established artists and emerging new talent from 17 nations – including notable contributions from the celebrated painter and collagist Godfried Donkor from Ghana; textile artist and mixed media installationist Safaa Erruas from Morocco; metalwork sculptor and anti-war activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique; and the internationally renowned textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali, most well-known for creating breath-taking, large-scale ‘offrandes’ out of delicate fragments of fabric stitched together to create multicoloured fine art tapestries.
In a similar way to the impression Zak Ove’s commissioned installation piece “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) created a visually arresting centre-piece for the courtyard at Somerset House last year, the major architectural installation shown in the Fountain Court was “Summer Surprise” (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon. This vast, wooden-framed structure is described by the artist as referencing and symbolising the function of a”Toguna” – a traditional public building native to Mali, built for the purpose of discussing community and constitutional issues, and usually located at the heart of village life to enable it to serve as a key meeting point for debate and intellectual exchange.
An important feature of this year’s fair was the interactive installation created by Morocco-born, UK-based artist Hassan Hajjaj, displayed in three rooms adjacent to the terrace on the ground floor at Somerset House. Titled “La Caravane” (2017), this work featured a series of large, full-colour photographic portraits and also a sequence of videos presented as interactive portraits along the length of the central gallery, showing musicians, dancers, singers and poets dressed in colourful outfits and performing extracts of their work in studio settings framed by customised textiles and soft furnishings. This central gallery was also designed as an auditorium, where visitors could sit and listen to the performances as though they were sitting in a Moroccan tea room being entertained by live artists.
Among my favourite assemblages were a series of figurative paintings by the Nigerian visual artist and architect Abe Odedina (b. 1960, Ibadan), curated for Ed Cross Fine Art Gallery by Katherine Finerty. More than 20 of the artist’s works were displayed from a series called “Body Language” – with each of the figures representing a call to action to prepare ourselves for surviving the physical and emotional conflicts and challenges of contemporary life. The artist’s work is described by the curator as “folk art inspired by the rich, figurative traditions of African art, infused with a trace of magic realism.” Influenced by a diverse range of cultural traditions and classical themes – from Greek mythology and Yoruba spiritual practices, through to Salvadoran and Bahia hybrid traditions in Brazil – Abe Odedina interprets his own practice and motivations as follows:
“The struggle is to reconcile bold imagery with ideas about ambiguity or indeterminacy. My intention is to arouse the imagination and heart of the viewer and to detonate ideas in another realm” – Abe Odedina (b. 1960, Ibadan, Nigeria), contemporary visual artist based in London and Salvador, Bahia.
As usual, there were a number of artists whose portfolios were completely new to me, and several of these were being shown in London for the first time. The standout artists in this category included Wallen Mapondera (b. 1985, Harare, Zimbabwe), a recipient of Zimbabwe’s prestigious National Arts Merit Award, and also Nigeria’s Taiye Idahor (b. 1984, Lagos), who has previously exhibited work at events such as Art Dubai and Eko Art Expo in Lagos (2017).
Other more established artists showcasing a wider portfolio of work at 1:54 included the South African figurative painter Bambo Sibiya (b. 1986, Springs, SA), whose image-making centres around and symbolises the spirit of ‘Ubuntu Ngabantu’ – a Zulu term that loosely translates as “I am what I am because of who we all are”; and also the Ghanaian abstractionist and printmaker Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Accra), whose new work “Maroons” (2017), shown below, addresses the themes of migrancy, acceptance, assimilation and acculturation.
In addition, art promoters such as Perve Galeria (based in Lisbon, Portugal) used 1:54 as an opportunity to introduce new audiences to the work of long-established African artists, such as the renowned Mozambican painter Ernesto Shikhani (1934-2010) famous for producing figurative artworks that reference his nation’s artistic traditions.
My concluding comments are reserved for the artwork of Owanto, an artist of Gabonese and British dual heritage, now living and working in Spain. Owanto’s artwork “Flowers IV” (2015) featured an enlarged, b&w documentary photograph of Gabonese women performing a dance during an adulthood initiation ceremony, taken during the colonial era. However, the archival image was modified to feature bright porcelain flowers superimposed on the faces of some of the women. Owanto’s conceptual practice centres on issues of identity and also cultural memory, and she regularly uses her art as a vehicle through which to examine complex issues relating to women’s rights of passage and broader gender politics in different cultures around the world. I was struck by the juxtaposition of bright yellow flowers against the grainy b&w group photograph, as though Owanto was seeking (in Carol E. Henderson’s terms) to “refigure” the disfigured, black female subject – frequently negatively represented in Western colonial photography – and, thus, “re-establish the integrity of the black female self” (Henderson, 2010: 6).
For further information, access to a full illustrated listing about the portfolios of c.130 artists featured at the 1:54 Art Fair, and synopses of the curators’ and gallerists’ talks and events, please visit the website http://1-54.com/london/
Henderson, Carol E. (2010) Imagining the Black female body: reconciling image in print and visual culture. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cover image: The featured image – “Be Humble” (2017) – was created by South African artist Nelson Makamo ( b. 1982, Modimolle, SA), who is based in Johannesburg and produces artworks in acrylic, pastel and charcoal that tell the stories of everyday life within the chaos of urban cityscapes.