Review of the 2018 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

The sixth London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House, 4-7 October 2018. Curated by its founding director Touria El Glaoui the event featured 43 international galleries showcasing the work of 130 established and emerging contemporary artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora.

Exhibition view of sculptural works by Gonçalo Mabunda (b. 1975, Mozambique) and paintings by Ajarb Bernard Ategwa (b. 1988, Cameroon) displayed in Jack Bell Gallery’s presentation at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In keeping with previous editions at this venue a major new sculptural work was displayed in the courtyard to serve as a focal point for the fair. This year’s Fountain Court commission was given to the internationally renowned Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who created three, large-scale versions of an oak sculpture titled “Meditation Tree” (2018). The majestic and beautifully sculpted wooden pieces were inspired by the artist’s memories of a particular type of Acacia tree, known as the Haraz, that is unique to Sudan and found along the banks of the River Nile.

‘Meditation Tree’ (2018) by Ibrahim El-Salahi – one of three oak sculptures displayed in the fountain courtyard at Somerset House as part of the 1:54 London art commission, 4-7 October 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Inside Somerset House one of the highlights of the expansive exposition was a series of sculptural installations, collages, tapestries, films and photographic works by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga, titled “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions.”  Displayed in three rooms throughout the Terrace Gallery near the main entrance Ruga’s artworks were curated to illustrate and comment upon a range of social and political issues concerned with challenging injustices and inequalities through his use of highly ornate and colourful allegorical compositions visualising how people express diverse and complex identities.

Detail from the series ‘Queens in Exile’ (2015-17), by Athi-Patra Ruga (b. 1984, South Africa), displayed in the exhibition ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ at Somerset House, London (4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019).

Self-defined as a queer Xhosa man Athi-Patra Ruga’s oeuvre serves as a powerful visual narrative documenting the lived experiences and corporealities of people whose opportunities to freely express their sense of self have been challenged and curtailed as a result of discrimination, acts of violence, social exclusion and other forms of oppression operating within local communities, nation states and wider global structures. A particular focus of Ruga’s presentation at Somerset House was to celebrate identities and bodies that have traditionally been constructed as ‘Other’/’non-human’ and positioned outside what is considered to be mainstream  – especially in relation to ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality and social class.

All of Ruga’s artworks openly contest and push back against dominant social, political, economic and cultural ‘norms’ to encourage visitors to question the accepted yet flawed conventions of how we define ourselves and construct a sense of what it means to be human. Framed specifically within the context of South Africa’s troubled history of apartheid several of the works reference utopianist constructions of ‘Azania’ and the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ while others deal with the historical actualities of what it has meant (and continues to mean) to struggle (politically, culturally and legislatively) to build a new nation in the post-apartheid era.

A tapestry from the series ‘The Future White Women of Azania’ (2012-15) by Athi-Patra Ruga (b. 1984, South Africa), displayed in the exhibition ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ at Somerset House, London (4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019).

A number of Ruga’s figurative pieces commemorate the lives of individuals within his own family (such as his grandmother), important historical figures from South Africa’s traumatic and difficult colonial past (including Saartjie Baartman) and influential artists of African descent from more recent decades whom the artist considers personal icons in relation to African diasporan, Black Atlantic and LGBTQ+ histories – most notably the Senegalese dancer and cabaret artist François (a.k.a “Feral”) Benga (1906-1957) who performed alongside Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère during Jazz era Paris. Regarding the latter, Ruga’s life-sized sculpture “The BEATification of Feral Benga” (2017) was one of the most awe-inspiring and thought-provoking of these tribute pieces, prominently positioned in the middle of the third room to represent the artist’s centring of this 1920s star of the Harlem Renaissance whose importance as black and queer icon has hitherto been marginalised or completely erased from world history.

‘The BEATification of Feral Benga’ (2017), by Athi-Patra Ruga (b.1984, South Africa), displayed as part of the exhibition ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ (Somerset House, 4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019). Photo: Carol Dixon.

In addition to Athi-Patra Ruga’s exhibition it was equally inspiring to view recent works by a number of other internationally celebrated artists who have been presenting portfolios at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair for several years. For example, the 2018 showcase by James Cohan Gallery displayed several new pieces by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE – including  beautifully hand-painted bronze sculptures from his series “Material” (2017), shown in the photograph below.

‘Material IV’ (2017) by Yinka Shonibare MBE. Hand painted bronze. Dimensions 70 x 99 x 76 cm. Displayed by James Cohan Gallery at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, 4-7 October 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon.

GAFRA (Gallery of African Art, London) displayed recent portraiture by Kenyan artist Evans Mbugua – each one capturing the dynamism and free-spiritedness of his youthful sitters portrayed against a backdrop of bold colours overlaid with dots and recurring motifs, as shown below in the work “Spring” (2018).

Detail from ‘Spring’ (2018) by Evans Mbugua (b. 1979, Kenya). Oil paint on perspex with photo paper. Dimensions 100 x 100 cm.

Among the most arresting and poignant pieces was a tiny sculptural installation titled “Mbeka 2” (2016) by Maurice Mbikayi from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Usually known for his bold and striking performance installations captured on camera, this very fragile and vulnerable sculptural work comprised a mummified mannequin of a small child’s body wrapped in bandages, wearing a hat made from discarded computer parts and perched on a tiny wooden chair next to a white dove and a black bag. The diminutive, doll-like figure was installed at a low level against the wall of a very busy gallery area that increased the sense of insecurity and fragility surrounding the piece. Similarly to the themes of Maurice Mbikayi’s photography, “Mbeka 2” could be interpreted as the latest representation in the artist’s ongoing art-political commentary about how advances in technology world-wide have often come at the cost of an increased reliance on mining natural resources from vast areas of continental Africa and other regions of the Global South – leading to irreparable levels of environmental damage, adult workforces becoming more vulnerable to low-wage labour abuses and the tragic exploitation of children in these labour markets.

‘Mbeka 2’ (2016) by Maurice Mbikayi (b. 1974, Kinshasa, DR Congo). Mixed media installation. Variable dimensions. Photo: Carol Dixon.

For further information about any of the aforementioned artists, and their wider portfolios of work, please visit the website and online gallery for the sixth London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair via the following link:

Additional details about Athi-Patra Ruga’s solo exhibition “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions” are also available online via the Somerset House website. This showcase will be free to view at Somerset House until 6 January 2019.

Featured cover image:
The title image at the top of this blog post shows details from a mixed-media portrait by Marion Boehm (b. 1964, Duisburg, Germany), displayed by Artco Gallery at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Many of Boehm’s collage-based figurative works typically depict and pay tribute to the lives of South African women from Soweto, Johannesburg. Textiles and other materials from the colonial period are combined with images of contemporary sitters to create a dialogue between South Africa’s past and the present.

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