Artsy + 1:54: A Thematic Guide to London’s Preeminent Contemporary African Art Fair

The Art Genome Project
Oct 15, 2015 11:00PM

150 artists. 37 exhibitors. 4 themes. Explore this year’s ambitious showcase of art from Africa and the African diaspora. 

London’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, now in its third edition, rightly opts out of trying to define African Art. As Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp observed, “Talking about the continent is like talking about the world.” Instead the fair brings together the work of artists whose national, ethnic, and religious affiliations with the continent serve as tools, as representations, or as fields of investigation.

With the fair’s largest showcase to date, there are more particularities than commonalities amongst the exhibiting artists, but the team behind The Art Genome Project, Artsy's in-house search technology and ongoing study of art, explores four prominent themes at this year’s ambitious iteration: Identity Through the Lens—a look at the contemporary legacy of portrait photography; Recycled & Repurposed—the innovative and unexpected transformation of everyday materials into artworks; Disrupting Borders—artists who explore the interplay between their own African backgrounds and new environments or histories; and The Body & Performance—artists who engage with the symbolic, political and corporeal properties of the human form. 

Beginning in the 1950s through the 1970s, Malian pioneers in studio photography including Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, and Hamidou Maiga captured a radically new post-colonial generation. These young Africans were image-conscious, globally minded, and sartorial consumers who ushered in a popular photoculture that extended well outside the urban center of Bamako and continues today.

This legacy is currently in the spotlight amongst artists and institutions alike. Witness the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current “In and Out of the Studio,” a survey of West African portrait photography, or last year’s “Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive” at The Walther Collection. At 1:54, projects like contemporary artist Ayana V. Jackson’s “Archival Impulse” and Namsa Leuba’s “WAD” use the camera—a technology that was, and is, widely used to create an image of Africa—to reflect on the complex history of image and identity on the continent.

Pagans XV, 2014
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Prototype/Phenotype, 2012
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
The Prophecy, Untitled #7, 2014
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Mimi Cherono Ng'ok, Fondation Donwahi, West g3

Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok lives and works in Nairobi but travels to farflung destinations (Ghana, Mozambique, Brazil and Germany, to name a few), where she finds subjects for her work. Her 2008 solo exhibition “I am Home” responded to xenophobic attacks in various South African cities by offering a series of intimate portraits of African immigrants—from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Kenya, among other countries—living in South Africa. On display at the fair is her more recent work, including photos from the series The Other Country, comprised of scenes in vacant, but lived-in, private spaces. The dining rooms and bedrooms in this series—devoid of their inhabitants, obliquely photographed and bathed in light—explore nostalgia and melancholy in family life.


New Look, Growing in Darkness series, 2012-2015
Ed Cross Fine Art
Fak You, Growing in Darkness series, 2012-2015
Ed Cross Fine Art

Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau photographs laborers, the homeless, and the fashionable young generation in his hometown of Maputo, in whom he reveals the European influences that pervade street style in Mozambique. His aesthetic—highly detailed, crafted, and black-and-white—harkens back to mid-century studio photography masters like Keïta and Sidibé. But, while bridging the style and optimism shared between the different generations, Macilau’s photographs are even more universal, portraying no less than the human condition.


Diorama, 2012
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Death, 2011
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

For contemporary artist Ayana V. Jackson’s 2013 series Archival Impulse, the photographer and filmmaker’s aim was simple: “to revisit and mine the archive.” Jackson combed through the South African Duggan Cronin collection of ethnographic photographs, as well as popular media photography from the 19th and 20th centuries. Stepping into the role of both sitter and photographer, she then restaged these photographs, which included such provocative images as portraits of the performers in Europe’s Human Zoos. In Death (2012) and Diorama (2013) Jackson, as she put it,“positions herself on both sides of the looking glass”. In one work, her body hangs naked from a tree, while a figure—the artist herself—gazes down at her own repeated form from above.   

Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall, Axis Gallery, West G11

Working in Durban, South Africa, Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall was most active in the 1960s and 70s and was one of the first studio photographers to produce color prints. Many of his subjects posed in traditional Zulu ceremonial costumes, though signs of modernity—linoleum flooring, tawdry artificial flowers, aviator sunglasses—mark the portraits and give the viewer a sense of the cultural and economic exchanges transforming the country. Posing, fashion, the preservation of an image as a memento or icon, are all a testament to the importance of photography as a means of capturing self-expression.

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Suspended in the entry portico of  Somerset’s West wing is the last-minute, special addition of El Anatsui’s Fresh and Fading Memories, Part V (2007), one of the Ghanaian sculptor’s monumental bottle cap installations. The piece is flanked on either side by two towering totem sculptures by Zak Ové, built from wooden masks stacked on and into recycled speakers. Anatsui, who was the newest recipient of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award this year, has made a career playing with the transformative possibilities of everyday recycled materials; his contemporary, Ove, does the same.

Artists across media take waste matter and culturally imbued everyday objects as their raw sculptural material. Jebila Okongwu cuts and manipulates banana boxes into bright, logo-laden collages; Romuald Hazoumè creates visual puns with his plastic petrol cans restyled as masks, and Olu Amoda assembles industrial debris (funnels, nails, oil filters) into mechanomorphic animal sculptures. 

Série Film noir dans un cadre doré # 1, 2015
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Pulled, 2013

Lyndi Sales, CIRCA Gallery, West G5

South African installation artist Lyndi Sales (exhibiting with CIRCA Gallery) has reinvented the cut-out with her large-scale, intricately designed wall sculptures. Many of Sales’ works addresses aspects of the 1987 Helderberg accident, an unresolved plane crash whose 159 killed passengers included her father. For In Transit, she brings together tickets, life jacket materials, paper and perspex, delicately cutting designs into them and overlapping them in a complex, fractal-like design.

Yesmine Ben Khelil, Selma Feriani Gallery, West G16

Untitled (VIII), 2015
Selma Feriani Gallery

Despite their child-like nature, the assemblages of Tunisian multi-media artist Yesmine Ben Khelil are, in fact, pointed political critiques. She has created fantastic hybrid characters—executed in glitter paint and felt markers—that are drawn both from her own imagination and appropriated images. Untitled II, based on a vintage photograph of a regal officer, which Khelil has covered in playful pink tentacles, shows how politically disparaging her seemingly naive gestures can be. 

 Lina Ben Rejeb, Selma Feriani Gallery, West G16 

Mémoires, à Toucher, 2015
Selma Feriani Gallery

Ben Rejeb questions, “And if the Lord was in the trace?”. Viewing language as a powerful indicator and shaper of culture, Rejeb deconstructs elements of texts and repurposes parts of notebooks to create her own visual language. Pattern, repetition, and sequence are distinguishing characteristics of Ben Rejeb’s work, and in particular of Mémoires, à Toucher, on display at the fair. By instilling new meaning in reused objects, she draws attention to the loss of meaning that occurs in translation. 

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If the Venice Biennale—or, as it is often called, the “artworld Olympics”—is an indication of global art trends, then the inauguration of Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor as the recurring exhibition’s first African curator becomes doubly important. Consider, too, that Italy sponsored the Kenyan pavilion, whose roster included six Chinese artists (against one Kenyan), and it’s clear that Venice this year—as a microcosm for the artworld—was a confluence of artistic progress, global economic interests, and shifting definitions of national identity for artists from Africa and the African diaspora. Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that exhibiting 1:54 artists explore the fluidity and boundlessness of individual identities in the diaspora, disrupting notions about a conventional African identity or history.

Untitled Triptych (from the series Demoiselles de Porto-Novo), 2012
Robert Klein Gallery


Karima Stylin, 2000
Vigo Gallery
Marques Toliver, 2009
Vigo Gallery

Already dubbed Morocco’s Andy Warhol, Hassan Hajjaj photographs friends, musicians, artists, and street goers in his native Marrakech, mixing traditional dress, religious and national symbols, and the bright colors and serial repetition of advertising and Pop Art. Having lived most of his life away from Morocco in London, Hajjaj's cultural references run the gamut from British hip-hop and Jamaican reggae to the traditional fashion and visual language of the Maghreb. Hajjah poses sitters against a green-screen-like backdrop of local brands and commodity labels—tins of Geisha mackerel, Maggi bouillon cubes, and Coca-Cola cans with Arabic script. These portraits are intentionally self-aware as they represent increasingly fluid economic and cultural borders.

Omar Victor Diop, Magnin-A, East G38 

Henrique Dias "Diaspora" series, 2015

Gustavus Vassa, a freed African slave turned leading abolitionist in 19th century London, or Dom Nicolau, prince of Kongo and anti-colonial activist in the 19th century, are two of the twelve figures captured in Omar Victor Diop’s Project Diaspora. Diop restaged European paintings of African emissaries and royalty from the Renaissance through the early 19th century, with Diop himself taking on the persona of each figure. Inserting soccer related imagery into his self-portraits (a soccer ball tucked under the arm of former slave turned French Revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Belley), Diop compares these overlooked historical figures of the diaspora to present day professional black African soccer players, drawing on their conflicting experience of glory, celebrity and racial exclusion.

Hervé Youmbi, Axis Gallery, West G11

Born in the Central African Republic but raised in Cameroon, Hervé Youmbi breaks the stereotype of the single “African aesthetic” in his latest project, Faces of Masks. The project developed in two parts: first, he tasked Bamileke craftspeople with combining their own traditions with those of Cameroonian and Malian societies to create one ceremonial mask, and second, he filmed the talismanic activation of the mask in a Malian initiation ritual. By combining the production and ceremonial practices of three distinct cultures, Youmbi demonstrates the multiplicity and complexity that belie  notions of a collective African identity.

Meschac Gaba, InSitu / Fabienne Leclerc, East G42A 

In Situ - Fabienne Leclerc

Frustrated that there was no feasible place for African artworks in European museums, Beninese-Dutch conceptual artist Meschac Gaba sought to create his own “anti-museum,” which would become the five year, 12-part rotating project Museum of Contemporary Art (1997-2002). Consisting of rooms such as Library, Museum Restaurant, and Museum Shop in addition to the Draft Room, Humanist Space, and Art and Religion Room, Gaba’s “museum” provided galleries for his contemporary African art objects as well as a space to consider the social and academic functions of the modern museum. By including both types of spaces, Gaba joined art and life, most literally in the Marriage Room, in which visitors could witness Gaba’s actual wedding. Gaba continues to blur borders with recent political works such as Voyage, bundles made from international flags tied to traditional African materials such as ebony and wood, and sculptures of American and Beninese architecture constructed of artificial hair braids.

Hassan Musa, Galerie Maïa Muller, East G34    

In an effort to mimic the writing of his older brothers, Hassan Musa invented his own pictorial system as a child growing up in Sudan­—“I think it was the real writing,” he laughs. With this as inspiration, Musa works in calligraphy, fabric, painting, and engraving, among other mediums, creating amalgamations of varied visual elements. From snippets of patterned textile to fragments of text and portraiture, Musa imbues traditional Western, Chinese, and Arabic painting elements with references to present-day ideology and archetypal icons–including Che Guevara and Barack Obama, among others. Musa examines the transmission of culture geographically across borders, as well as throughout time, and somehow manages to create harmonious imagery out of clashing components.

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Restrict. Confine. Contain. Obscure. For a number of female artists at 1:54—Amina Benbouchta, Meriem Bouderbala, Senga Nengudi and Simone Leigh to name a few—these are the actions socially and physically imposed on the female body, actions which the artists themselves visualize and physicalize in their own work. On October 17th the fair hosted a book launch and a panel discussion for “Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the work of Six African Artists," the accompanying catalogue to a Brussels-based 2014 group show of the same name. The exhibition brought together a younger generation of female artists “striving to define and articulate notions of feminism and sexuality” through the African—and black—female body. 

Opkosso aka Zezeto, 2015
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury - Abidjan
Kitoko (Beautiful), 2013
Primo Marella Gallery
Seven, 2015
Tiwani Contemporary

Ingrid Mwangi, Galerie Anne de Villepoix, West G1

In her photographic diptych Static Drift, German-Kenyan artist Ingrid Mwangi turns the camera on herself: “I am the stage.” On the left panel, she displays a light imprint of Africa’s continental border on her naked torso, accompanied by the text “Bright Dark Country,” and a darker imprint of Germany’s outline and the text “Burn Out Country” to the right. Mwangi visualizes the “confused racial signifiers of skin color” by rejecting a tendency to associate dark skin with Africa and light skin with Germany. She uses her text to similar effect, bringing attention to our negative association with darkness, as it reflects a fear and pessimism that often cloud the continent’s global profile.

Anthony Lane, Johans Borman Fine Art, South G01

South African sculptor and designer Anthony Lane creates neo-Futurist sculptures that evoke the graceful movement of the human body in motion. Lane emulates the effect of paper falling into three-dimensional forms, and the resulting sculptures delicately transform aluminum and metal into reclining, seated and standing human forms. 

Senga Nengudi, Galerie Anne de Villepoix, West G1

A pioneer in the 1970s Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles, artist Senga Nengudi created a series of abstract sculptures made of nylon pantyhose that she stretched, constrained, or filled with rocks and stones before suspending them in a series of choreographed performances. By manipulating her biomorphic sculptures, which suggest skin, limbs, and organs, Nengudi performs the widespread physical mutations and violence “both inwardly and outwardly imposed on the female form. “Horrific things that are done to women, like rape, as well as what we women do to ourselves, like plastic surgery, are powerful afflictions that the type of distortions made by the nylons can directly speak to.”

Amina Benbouchta, GVCC, South G0 

“I like to speak of violent subjects with almost invisible means,” says photographer Amina Benbouchta of her subtle but politically-charged self portraits. Benbouchta rarely reveals her face, using domestic objects like teapots and mirrors to conceal herself, or placing physically restricting objects like hoop skirts and shackles at her feet. The artist’s staged scenes recreate the anonymous and highly contained position women are often forced to occupy in society. 

Adejoke Tugbiyele, October Gallery, West G1A

Homeless Hungry Homo, 2014
October Gallery
Flight to Revelation , 2011
October Gallery

The body, and in particular the female form, is an important focus in Nigerian-American artist and queer activist Adejoke Tugbiyele’s elaborate woven sculptures made from organic materials like straw, palm stems, and antlers. Having spent her formative years in Lagos, she finds much of her inspiration in traditional Nigerian patterns and craftsmanship, touching on the ritual—that is, performative—character of Yoruba culture. Her figurative sculptures play with, but are not tied to, the human form. Partly religious icons, partly imaginative creatures, Tugbiyele’s sculptures explore the roots of sexuality and female bodily presence. 

Meriem Bouderbala, GVCC, South G03

Tunisian artist Meriem Bouderbala examines the intricacies of the female body and the broader religious, political, and cultural implications of being a woman in present-day Muslim society. She is widely recognized for her sensuous photography, which showcases the soft curves, contours, and folds of cloaked and veiled female silhouettes. Her ceramic replicas of traditional Tunisian dolls, Suspicious Ambivalences, are exhibited at the fair. Simultaneously grotesque and majestic, with their timid postures and boldly dripped paint, these sculptures point to the harsh domestic realities often endured by Muslim women.

Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, Primo Marella Gallery, East G39 

Avatar, 2014
Primo Marella Gallery

Congolese activist and conceptual artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo takes the body as subject for his textured and evocative collage paintings. By assembling clippings from fashion magazines into dismembered bodies, Bondo’s portraits are “mutilated and chaotic,” and attempt to capture the physical trauma that plagues victims of ethnic and religious conflict worldwide.

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Explore more artists at 1:54. To learn more about The Art Genome Project, visit our blog, or email [email protected] 

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