At 1:54, Contemporary African Artists Grapple with Our Globalizing World

  • The Somerset House, 2015. Courtesy of 1:54 © Benjamin Hoffman.

Fresh from a well-received debut in New York earlier this year, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair returns to London for an expanded presentation of art from Africa and the African diaspora. Hosted amid the elegantly proportioned corridors of Somerset House, the fair brings together a total of 37 galleries, 14 of which are based in Africa. The design of the fair—with galleries in the building’s west wing given their own rooms, and exhibitors in the east wing organized according to a pleasingly irregular pattern—allows visitors to gather their breath between each presentation. The consequence is a rather more stately, considered journey around the different stands than is typical of a fair, with time to appraise each presentation on its own terms. 

  • Installation view of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, 2015. Courtesy of 1:54 © Benjamin Hoffman.

Still, certain themes emerge across the selections, some of them unexpected but nonetheless illuminating. Among the strangest of those revealing coincidences was my encounter with two photographic works that foreground Africa’s participation in the increasingly global obsession with European soccer. A few moments after viewing a photograph centered around the name of the celebrated French-Algerian player Zinedine Zidane, I came across Fashion (2014), a large-format work by the young, Cameroon-born photographer Siaka Traoré Soppo, exhibited by Galerie MAM. This vivid street scene—the edges of each of its figures so sharply incised into the print as to resemble collage—has at its center that most archetypal male status symbol, a motorbike, behind which a young Senegalese man stands, hands clasped. What renders the image strange in this European context is that the saddle of the bike has been carefully, and rather beautifully, re-upholstered with an FC Barcelona replica shirt, printed with the name of Spain’s resident star athlete, the Argentina–born Lionel Messi. That the bike’s owner (if we can assume he is the owner) should feel such affinity to the player and make such an overt statement of allegiance, hints at new, globalized identities, premised upon loyalties to international stars operating in a free market for their labor.

This combination of global and local is embedded in the practice of Masimba Hwati, whose intriguing, mixed-media assemblage pieces are on show at KooVha Gallery. Combining organic and inorganic materials (animal skulls and horns, musical instruments, plastic skateboard wheels) from the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, Hwati presents an intriguing commentary on the influence of imported objects as much as ideas on southern African culture. In his guitar-shaped sculpture is, also, an arresting echo of Picasso’s celebrated guitars. Nor is this work alone in its relocation of modernist European preoccupations to the African continent. Though very different in style and execution, Hennie Nieman Jnr’s paintings at Johans Borman Fine Art also bring to mind the bright colors and sensuous lines of early Picasso and the Fauves

At Jack Bell Gallery, the conflicted relationship between canonical European art and traditional African culture—specifically the exploitation by the modernist pioneers of so-called “primitivism”—is made explicit in the unsettling photographs of Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou. His Untitled (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) (2012) brings home the way that Western perspectives on Africa have been conditioned by art history. They are counterpointed by grand, colorful, collaged canvases by the Abidjan-based painter Aboudia. Chronicles of the city in which he lives, they are among the most thrilling works on canvas on display at the fair.

A clever spin on another staple of recent art history is provided by Jebila Okongwu, showing with Axis Gallery, who works with banana boxes—a symbol to many of Western neo-colonialist business practices. These are worked into a clever sculptural pastiche of Andy Warhol’s famous “peel it and see” bananas, while hinting, too, at the same artist’s Brillo Box sculptures. It’s a witty critique. Where Warhol’s pieces played on the artistic value of the banal, Okongwu exposes the way that even the most mundane objects carry symbolic weight that is too easily ignored. 

  • Installation view of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, 2015. Courtesy of 1:54 © Benjamin Hoffman.

As well as bringing attention to new names, the fair also showcases more familiar artists, including the brilliant Otobang Nkanga (In Situ - Fabienne Leclerc) and Ibrahim El Salahi (Vigo Gallery). Through this combination of emerging and established, 1:54 succeeds in casting new light upon many of the prevailing trends in African art across a variety of media. Even in the midst of London’s most intense week for anyone involved in the arts, it’s worth setting aside an afternoon for a trip to Somerset House. 

Ben Eastham


Explore 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair 2015 on Artsy.

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