1:54 Is Providing a Crucial Platform for Contemporary African Art
On my way to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to the second New York edition of the acclaimed 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, dedicated to contemporary art of the African Diaspora, I happened to get into a cab driven by a Kenyan woman. She and I quickly struck up a conversation about what had brought us both to New York from other places. She told me the story of how her family had no choice but to leave Nairobi after her husband, a former Kenyan member of Parliament, had been caught up in the violence following the country’s controversial 2007 election. After he received death threats, it became necessary for their family to apply for political asylum in the U.S., which they were granted almost immediately.
While Africa is vast and multifarious, and a place where functioning democracies coexist with more authoritarian regimes, political and social instability continues to run rife in many countries. This may explain why, of the 17 galleries on view at 1:54, only five of them are based within the African continent. “It’s hard to have a gallery in Africa,” Lavinia Calza, who runs ARTLabAfrica in Nairobi, told me during the fair’s preview. This is at least the case in Nairobi, she said, where security concerns can make openings difficult. It’s also a question of global economics: She relies almost entirely on the overseas market for African art to support her gallery.
The opportunity for Calza to show work at fairs like 1:54 feels ever more important when looking at the outstanding work by East African artists that fills her booth, including Peterson Kamwathi’s dreamlike meditations on our relationship to the universe; and the charged paintings of Beatrice Wanjiku, featuring amorphous figures in straitjackets. Calza is quick to point out the more vibrant art scenes elsewhere in Africa, particularly in Lagos and Cape Town, the latter of which is well represented at this year’s edition of Frieze New York, which is currently being held on Randall’s Island.
South Africa is also represented at 1:54. Henri Vergon, co-owner of Johannesburg-based gallery Afronova, explained that his gallery, too, is fueled by an international, rather than local, collector base. This recently prompted Vergon to dissolve their brick-and-mortar space altogether, shifting instead to an itinerant model. “We are based in Johannesburg for proximity to the artists, but our market has for many years now been overseas,” he said. “A couple of years ago we used to pay rent, now we pay for plane tickets; we travel with the artists. This time we traveled with Billie Zangewa, who did these wonderful tapestries.”
The booth itself is excellent, featuring Zangewa’s textiles along with the political tapestries of Lawrence Lemaoana, and three other artists all working with photography—John Liebenberg, Lebohang Kganye, and Nontsikelelo Veleko. South African artist Veleko has been capturing images of her native country’s youth since the early 2000s. “She was instrumental in documenting the redefinition of identity among the young blacks,” said Vergon. “These were mainly what we call ‘born-frees,’ people who were born after 1994 and never knew the apartheid, as such.”
David Krut Projects is another gallery based in South Africa with a strong presence overseas (including a space in New York), showing works at the fair by the country’s preeminent artist William Kentridge, alongside the photography of Aida Muluneh, paintings by Endale Desalegn, and renderings made in ash by Diane Victor. “We act as a satellite space for artists that have come through the print workshop in South Africa,” Meghan Johnson of the New York branch told me.
With such a large contingent of galleries at the fair based outside of the African continent, there was evidence of both the extraordinarily rich diaspora as well as the cultural exchange taking place around the nexus of Africa. Sitor Senghor, who runs his eponymous gallery out of Paris, is showing for the first time at the New York edition of 1:54. “I might do more and more things in London and the States,” he told me, “because the market is more vibrant in those two places than in Paris.” Senghor, who is half-French, half-Senegalese, is showing work by two Senegalese artists, the colorful, ethereal compositions of William Sagna and the attenuated figures of sculptor Ndary Lo, the latter who is better known in the U.S. due to his previous inclusion in an exhibition at the Smithsonian.
“If you take Ndary’s figures, a lot of people compare them with Giacometti,” Senghor said, “but Giacometti was in fact very inspired by African sculpture. Ndary uses recycled metal, whereas Giacometti used bronze.” The gallerist points to a long history of cultural exchange between Africa and other parts of the world: “My great uncle was the first president of Senegal, and he created so many opportunities for artists—to take residence in Dakar and work there,” Senghor said. “When he was traveling abroad, he was always bringing artists with him. And he was bringing artists to Senegal, too. As we say, this metissage is essential.”
Another frequent sentiment expressed across the fair was the desire for African artists to keep a foot in their home continent while gaining access to wider audiences overseas. “Artists want to keep their ground in Africa but show their work abroad,” said Mariane Ibrahim, whose standout booth had a constant stream of excited collectors throughout opening day. “This is the case with Zohra Opoku; she has a strong ground in Ghana.” Opoku’s graceful self-portraits, printed on fabric, threaded together, and hung from the ceiling of Ibrahim’s booth, were completed while the artist was at a residency at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California. One of the works was bought right in front of me at 1:54, with the collector considering coming back for the second.
Ibrahim’s gallery, which works with artists from across the African Diaspora, and which was recently featured as part of the Armory’s Focus section, is based in Seattle. “The market there is very provincial,” she said of her gallery’s home city, “but there are really high-end collectors from the big companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing. They collect, but they collect artists that have been validated already. So not necessarily anything too avant-garde. A fair like 1:54 is where I can really have some fun.” Alongside Opoku’s hangings in the booth are the gorgeous, theatrical photos of Fabrice Monteiro and Maïmouna Guerresi, as well as a beautiful painting by ruby onyinyechi amanze.
Ibrahim said she was pleased with the increased momentum and visibility of this year’s fair, even after last year’s successful inaugural edition in New York. “The second year is really interesting,” she said. “I am fascinated to see the number of collectors here who are extremely well-known. Some are coming for this second edition who didn’t come for the first.” Erica Fenaroli at the Italian gallery A Palazzo, which has been involved with the London and New York editions of the fair since its launch, agrees: “Everyone comes here,” she told me. “All the curators—MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, even people from overseas.”