1-54 London, 2022: Celebrating 10 Years of the Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House

Artwork comprising three figures, designed to camouflage against a blue and black, checker-board effect background. Acrylic on canvas, c.250x300cm.

The 2022 edition of 1-54 at Somerset House, London, marked a decade since this contemporary art fair has been showcasing the work of artists from Africa and its diasporas in the UK capital.

The west wing of the art gallery Somerset House (an 18th century building), with a contemporary art installation comprising 140 rectangular wooden blocks displayed in the courtyard in front of the building. The blocks are configured in the shape of a boat, representing a 32-metre-long, 18th century British slave ship.
Grada Kilomba’s Fountain Court installation “O Barco/The Boat” (2021), comprising 140 wooden blocks configured to represent an 18th century slave ship. Dimensions: 32-metres in length. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Since its inaugural edition in 2013, founded and directed by Touria El Glaoui, the fair has grown in size and scope to now feature an annual fixture of more than 130 artists (represented by 50 galleries) showing hundreds of artworks at Somerset House, with additional, similarly expansive presentations in New York, Marrakech and Paris. The progression and longevity of this fair over the past decade has enabled 1-54 to make an increasingly significant contribution towards shaping and influencing art world dialogues, practices and advancements concerning the production, promotion, sale and international distribution of modern and contemporary art from continental Africa and its diasporas.

Ayrson Heráclito, Pedro Pires and Zanele Muholi

As I have written at length about several past editions of the London showcase (linked below), with accompanying details about the 1-54 Forum (the guest-curated thematic programme of artists’ talks, research presentations and panel discussions) over successive years, this tenth anniversary review of 1:54 provides just a small selection of the standout artworks that were the most visually engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking to view in October 2022 – from sculptural works by Ayrson Heráclito (Brazil), Pedro Pires (Angola) and Zanele Muholi (South Africa), shown above; through to the sublime and ethereal paintings by Haitian modernist Roland Dorcély (1930-2017), pictured below.

Roland Dorcély (Port-au-Prince, 1930-2017), Haiti

Untitled (1962)

Léda and the Swan (c.1958)

Safaa Erruas (b. 1976, Tetouan), Morocco

Tewodros Hagos (b. 1974, Addis Ababa), Ethiopia

Sikelela Owen (b. 1984, London), United Kingdom

Untitled work by Sikelela Owen. Oil on canvas, 150 x 180 cm. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Ghizlane Sahli (b. 1973, Meknes), Morocco

“Histoires de Tripes, Volume 006” (2019) by Ghizlane Sahli. Silk and plastic tubes on wire frame. 80 x 45 x 45 cm. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Chris Soal (b. 1994, Johannesburg), South Africa

“In contending with shadows” (2022), by Chris Soal. Burnt and unburnt bamboo and birch wood tooth-picks, held in Polyurethane sealant on board. 275 x 317 x 32 cm.
Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Grada Kilomba (b. 1968, Lisbon), Portugal

“O Barco/The Boat” (2021), by Grada Kilomba, installed at Somerset House for 1-54 London. A selection of the 140 blocks feature poetic inscriptions in different languages, commemorating the lives of enslaved Africans throughout the era of European maritime expansion, transatlantic slave trading and colonisation. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Pedro Neves (b. 1997, Imperatriz, Maranhão), Brazil

It is fitting that the cover art for this review, posted to Museum Geographies on October 31st, 2022, should be by a Brazilian artist with African heritage from the diaspora communities in Minas Gerais.

The textures, colours and patterns featured in Pedro Neves’ large-scale figurative painting “Castigo” [Punishment] (2022) are awe-inspiring, especially when viewed up close. Contemplating this artwork in situ at Somerset House, I was struck by the intricate detail and the immense creative labour invested in perfecting this checkerboard camouflage technique to create the impression of Black bodies being rendered simultaneously invisible and ‘hyper-visible’ as a result of the surroundings.

A painting comprising three figures with African heritage draped in checkerboard robes, each painted to camouflage against a black and blue checkerboard-effect background.

Detail from “Castigo” (2022), by Brazilian contemporary artist Pedro Neves. Acrylic on canvas. 206 x 155 cm. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

When recently discussing the characters he chose to envelop within this fluid and immersive checkerboard effect for several paintings, as part of the virtual artist’s tour of his inaugural Portas Vilaseca Galeria solo exhibition, “Tripa” (2022), Pedro Neves remarked:

“It is as if they [these historical figures with African heritage] were people who do not exist, but at the same time they are present, and I take the popular saying ‘the walls have ears!’ So, it is a way to represent these people who were part of this whole colonial and imperialist period, all this violence that stirred in the Americas. So, that’s the method I’m using to unravel this part of history.”

Source: Translated extract from Pedro Neves’ filmed virtual tour of his solo exhibition, “Tripa” (2022), showcasing 11 paintings at Portas Vilaseca Galeria, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The gallerist’s press statement about “Castigo” for 1:54 adds further context about the symbolism, emotions and inspiration undergirding the artist’s work, stating:

“Neves explores scenes inspired by masks, props, photographic poses, colors and expressions present in popular traditions, reinventing the place of violence within a state of playfulness… [T]he work “Castigo” [Punishment] is a reflection on public education and how the teaching experience is constructed. Much of what is learned is founded on the fear of punishment – a social scheme that spreads throughout people’s daily lives.

Source: “Pedro Neves – New paintings” – Portas Vilaseca Galeria at 1:54 London.

Past reviews of 1-54 London

Further information

1-54 website – https://www.1-54.com/

Emi Eleodi (2022) “1-54 Director Touria El Glaoui on Expanding Global Awareness of African Art,” Artsy Editorial [Online] – https://www.artsy.net/

Grada Kilomba’s documentary film about “O Barco/The Boat.” In MAAT – Museum for Art, Architecture and Technology for BoCA – Bienal of Contemporary Art, 2021. Portuguese, with English subtitles. Video credits: Waves of Youth. Goodman Gallery on Vimeo (Duration: c. 19 minutes)

Grada Kilomba (2022) A Tour of 1-54 London. Interdisciplinary artist Grada Kilomba provides an interpretation of her performance installation, “O Barco/The Boat,” presented in the Fountain Courtyard at Somerset House for 1-54 London.

Pedro Neves (Artist’s profile and online gallery, via Portas Vilaseca Galeria) – http://www.portasvilaseca.com.br/en/artistas/pedro-neves-2/

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