Curated Highlights: Omar Kholeif's Selection from 1-54 Paris

Apr 7, 2022 10:00AM

Dr. Omar Kholeif (EG/SU/UK) is an author of prose and poetry; an artist of lyric and performance; a curator in the physical and the virtual sphere; a cultural historian of the academy and its peripheries, and a broadcaster who explores the public’s understanding of the internet and its relationship to art, culture, and social justice. Kholeif is the author or co-author of over two dozen books, which have been translated into 12 languages. They currently serve as the Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE.

Dr Omar Kholeif. Photo © Blake Gallacher

I am on the Eurostar on my way to Paris for the first time in three years. Paris, not Marrakech, where this edition of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair was conceived to happen—another return, thwarted—another door opens. I am sandwiched in the back of an overstuffed carriage— we are a bunch of masked sardines, but nevertheless, the excitement of movement, of being with people, the possibility of attending to community, feels like vital lifeblood.

The excitement of movement, of being with people, the possibility of attending to community, feels like vital lifeblood.

We have been living in microcosms. Our kinship to artists mediated through virtual studio visits, omitting the infectious smells of paint drying on canvas, or the chaotic spree that encompasses a creative’s material space. Of all the artists who I came to learn of since pandemic free-fall began, my obsession has been with the Moroccan-Spanish figure, Anuar Khalifi. The Third Line Gallery in Dubai had posted a vibrant picture of his work on social media. Neo Impressionist in style, the picture’s lush interiors were bristled by Khalifi’s central subject—a young person, engorged within fabric, hiding under the covers—in disrepair. Created before the global lockdowns associated with Covid-19, this crumbling fellow’s state of mind and interior distress felt like a premonition of life to come.

It should then come as no surprise that at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair’s Paris edition, I am most enthusiastic to see the Third Line’s solo booth of new works by Anuar Khalifi entitled, Antagonist Protagonist (2021-22). Each of these renderings span the duality of the artist’s multiple lived experiences; the identities that he chooses to embody, and the ones that he has left behind. Of marked importance here is Khalifi’s The Wounded Raver (2021), a re-imagining of a Goya painting crafted for the modern-world. Here, Spanish Romance painter Goya’s ‘wounded mason’ is replaced with what appears to be an inebriated football fan, bookended by a fraternity of dervishes.

At Kó, I am looking forward to immersing myself into Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s filmic scenes as they unfurl on fabric-like sheaths of affectionate paper. Each work is crafted through a unique gesture of performance. Françoise Livinec’s presentation of Adjaratou Ouedraogo, who lives in Burkina Faso is a discovery. I am besotted by the rich textures that I see—the use of materials such as crayon, suggests a rudimentary aesthetic, meanwhile they can be found tackling the social and political narratives of our time, as in La Solidarité.

Elsewhere in the fair, I am thrilled that Galerie Nathalie Obadia continues to maintain robust interest and a commitment to Africa’s contemporary photographic scene. Youssef Nabil’s Self Portrait Alexandrie from 2009 does more than simply tug at the heart strings; it literally unspools memories of my childhood under his hand-painted glaze. The fact that it was the book cover of one of my favourite collections of essays by André Aicman, only drives the sentiment right home to the gut. Also, on view at Obadia’s booth are numerous works that date all the way back to 1948 by Seydou Keïta—an icon of Malian culture, and widely considered to be ‘the godfather of African photography’.

Prince Gyasi
FOR SALE?, 2021
Nil Gallery
Prince Gyasi
The 12 Powers, 2020
Nil Gallery

On polar end of this sits a magnificent booth by Nil Gallery, who are exhibiting the luminescent brilliance of the youthful Ghanaian photographer, Prince Gyasi. Particularly consuming are his photos, For Sale? (2021) and The 12 Powers (2020). The former speaks to the circuitous chains of human capital, while the latter’s bold framing accentuates the imaginative potential of the black male body—the duo’s figure’s seemingly ascending to the heavens. I am ecstatic to bear witness to Mous Lamrabat’s evolving practice, which takes on new political meaning in Warning (2021).

Closing out the show for me is Sabrina Amrani’s exhibition of work by Amina Benbouchta, whose Poor Little Rich Girl produced this year, using the mixed mediums of cotton and upholstery, mesmerizes with its vulnerable tactility. The art of the African continent continues to contort and stretch our imagination, and 1-54’s pop up fair in Paris presents us with an enrapturing slice of its present and proposes new questions regarding its potential future.

–– Dr Omar Kholeif