More than a Marketplace: How 1:54 Art Fair is Expanding Our Understanding of African Art

Kimberly Drew
Oct 13, 2014 9:35PM

Taking place in London during Frieze Week this fall, the second edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair aims to breathe new life into the global art market’s narrow understanding of African art. Initiated by Touria El Glaoui in 2013, 1:54 is more than an art fair—it is a platform for discourse poised to educate a global audience about contemporary African art. It will welcome over 100 artists from 27 carefully selected galleries from Kenya, South Africa, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

During a panel discussion at Artsy headquarters this summer, El Glaoui noted that even the fair’s title has an educational purpose: it’s a reminder that Africa is a continent made up of 54 nations. A bold jab at careless misconceptions, the title both acknowledges and defies Western notions of Africa as a monolithic culture, while pointing to the continent’s staggering diversity. 

Designed to achieve more than a typical art fair, 1:54 invites participating galleries to go beyond commercial exchange to engage in meaningful dialogue. On the fair’s web site, video statements from a diverse set of gallerists attest to the need for a fair this kind. Director of gallery Carpe Diem, Amadou Chab Touré states: “The advantage of 1:54 is the great diversity of audiences that I have encountered. I have met institutions and museums. I have seen collectors and amateurs. And I have met individuals. And that’s amazing. There’s no question I’ll return next year.” 

Running concurrently with the fair, the educational program, Forum, presents films, lectures, and panel discussions featuring artists and thinkers like John Akomfrah, Meschac Gaba, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Elvira Dyangani Ose, Renée Mussai, and many more. Curated by Koyo Kouoh, Forum creates a space for conversations about collecting and art-making, and invites visitors into what Kouoh describes as “the African mindset”—a sense of cultural belonging that has more to do with Africa as an idea than a geographical location. 

Though many major fairs have programs similar to Forum, it is rare for a fair dedicated to artists on the margins to offer such substantial support for scholarship. Moreover, the fair has a distinct interest in empowering voices from the continent. Kouoh says, “there is a high sense of ownership that has been taken over by a new generation of contemporary African practitioners: curators, artists, and organizers.” Forum will provide a platform for these voices.

1:54’s mission is critical to the future of collecting and studying African art. Encountering the fair in person or online empowers individuals to think not just about what’s trending now, but what’s on the horizon. 

Kimberly Drew