1:54 The New Face of African Art in North America?

Contemporary African art is growing into a more coveted commodity within a terse global art market. The emergence of art fairs such as 1:54 could signal a rise in seamless commercial platforms for African-related art practices; especially those that showcase: the interactive realm of video art, visual narratives that straddle the past within the current global market economy and, some of the more evocative artworks by African women today.


1:54 Contemporary Art fair, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, May 2015 (installation view). Courtesy of 1:54. Photo © Katrina Sorrentino.


Some of us spent Frieze Week New York 2015 at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the first of its kind in New York. For five days, 1:54 New York took over Pioneer Works-Dustin Yellin’s colossal non-profit art space on the eastern edge of Brooklyn, which was quite a schlep. Touria El Glaoui, founder of 1:54, first launched the fair at London’s Somerset House in 2013 where it graced the hallways of this 18th century neoclassical building in the heart of the city.

After its second London edition in October 2014, 1:54 had six months to set up a much smaller satellite fair in Redhook’s industrial sprawl, during New York’s mid-May Frieze frenzy. Sixteen galleries based in Europe, Africa, and North America exhibited a range of emerging visual works alongside towering figures such as William Kentridge at David Krut Projects. 1:54 had pared itself down to focus on less galleries than in London, where there were 27 exhibitors.


1:54 Contemporary Art fair, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, May 2015 (installation view). Courtesy of 1:54. Photo © Sasha Arutyunova.


At Pioneer Works, you could easily lose yourself in a maze of roomy white linear cubicles, slowly taking in the details of a pair of large subversive sculptural chalk-graffiti-walls by Conrad Botes at Bennett Contemporary, Cape Town. The fair’s spacious layout was designed by Somali-born architect Rashid Ali and RA Projects. The exhibition design was limber yet pristine; it formed fluid spaces where curatorial forums by Koyo Kouoh of Raw Material Company, Dakar converged with artworks and the public seamlessly.


Theo Eshetu. Anima Mundi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery.


Theo Eshetu’s ‘Anima Mundi’ at Axis Gallery, New York was quite a head turner: a lone video gem amidst mostly framed works pegged to makeshift white walls. This work alone embodied the spirit of the fair’s debut at Pioneer Works, where art could essentially be consumed by anyone who cared to lean in and peer into a whole other way of experiencing the world and art itself. ‘Anima Mundi’ virtually sucked your face into a custom-made 3D glass-film-booth. This morphed into a fractured globe of zapping sounds and images. Eshetu’s immersive multimedia and video installation drew a swarm of people into what felt like a dazzling-disco-trip: one that spoke to a singular human soul, evoking the depths of its many different selves. However, it was only one of  two video installations at the fair although it was among the most astounding and potentially more profitable iterations of experimental video art as a whole today. It would be interesting to see how 1:54 builds on this opportunity, to show and commodify the fleeting realm of video art, which seems to be gaining more momentum among art dealers and collectors alike. Works such as ‘Anima Mundi’ could also reach far and wide, drawing in wanderers, fairgoers and art collectors alike into what I feel, is a more mesmerizing and deeply sensory experience of contemporary art today.


Sammy Baloji. Untitled 13, Memoire, 2006, from the series ‘Memoire‘. Courtesy of Axis Gallery.


Some artworks at 1:54 were quite explicit in bringing memories of the past into the present global market economy. In that sense, Sammy Baloji’s large-scale photographs, also at Axis Gallery, stood out as solemn and obstinate. In his ‘Memoire’ series, the Congolese conceptual artist mourns the remnants of colonial history, its adverse effects on architecture and resource exploitation in his native Lubumbashi. His stark photo-collages of land degradation caused by the mining industry, its human cost, are set against a foreground of Congo’s colonial past under Belgian rule. Memory and place are at the heart of Baloji’s artistic practise. He uses those to immortalise the scars of colonial rule and resource extraction in Lubumbashi through photo-montage.

Writer and curator Osei Bonsu, spoke passionately of an ‘urgent’ need for Africans and people of African descent to take full charge of African and African-related art practices in Africa today. That’s precisely why he founded Crane, a new virtual non-profit exhibition and publishing platform on African-related art practices from the continent. Crane was also at 1:54, where it launched emerging artist Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Out of Bounds’, a limited edition of small photography books handmade and wrapped in burlap sackcloth straight from Ghana. Mahama’s large-scale public installations, such as the one currently on view at the Venice Biennale, explore how capital and labour manifest themselves through industrial materials such as worn-out sackcloth. What remains to be seen, is how, over time, 1:54 could also contribute to stretching the scope of art, commerce and agency on the African continent itself. That could inform how far artists such as Sammy Baloji and Ibrahim Mahama can aspire to create and sell works that echo the living conditions of the people and the physical environment in which they live, within a growing and at times, brutal global market economy.


Billie Zangewa. Ma vie en rose. 2015. Courtesy of Afronova.


Of the 68 artists being shown during 1:54 in Brooklyn, surprisingly, only eight were women. Yet two of the four works that had struck me the most, were in fact by emerging artists Billie Zangewa and ruby onyinyechi amanze. I was quite moved by a rose-coloured silk tapestry, hanging naked at Afronova, Johannesburg. The closer I got to it, the more I unraveled a layered visual landscape of finely-cut shapes and hues, stitched with cotton thread. I came to realise, Malawian artist Billie Zangewa was generously weaving her own life story into a uniquely lyrical patchwork. Ultimately, ‘Ma vie en rose’ evokes the delicate face of love, loss and triumph that could mirror all of our lives in a world that can seem so brazen, and unrelenting.

And then there were the large-scale ink drawings by Nigerian-born artist ruby onyinyechi amanze at Mariane Ibrahim gallery, Seattle. ruby’s fluorescent figures also carry traces of photo-transfer. They take us into the realm of fantasy where history and popular culture collide to form a new visual language on migration and identity within a more hybrid fairytale. In both instances, these women are opening up to the world, unveiling their layered identities through candid storytelling and bold art practices that defy time, gender and even, what it means to be beautiful. I think such forms of confessional art could appeal not only to the depths of the heart but also to a restless mind that yearns to own them.


ruby onyinyechi amanze. Kisses at a beach with a hammock for audre (to learn to pray), 2015. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.


1:54 has made its mark on contemporary African art in New York, broadening the art fair ecology in a city where art fairs come and go. I genuinely hope it comes back to Pioneer Works next May. I am also hopeful, that over time, it will do its name justice, by existing on and for the entire African continent. It also remains to be seen if 1:54 has the wherewithal to show and sell more artworks by: pioneers of video art; a growing fleet of robust confessional women artists and; artists that evoke the woes of the past through the current global market economy. For more on 1:54 New York, follow the art fair on Artsy, its exclusive online partner.

Written by Mebrak Tareke


Correction: June 3, 2015  | An earlier version of this article incorrectly described ruby onyinyechi amanze figures as having traces of photo-montage, rather than photo-transfer.

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