Next year will commemorate 10 years since the seminal Africa Remix exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. When it launched, Africa Remix was considered to be the largest collection of African art to be shown in Europe. Coincidentally, Africa Remix marked 10 years since Africa: the Art of a Continent showed at the Royal Academy, and the Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa exhibition was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The conversations these exhibitions facilitated have helped push a new definition and perception of contemporary African art in Europe and Globally.

Significantly, the perception of African art has shifted from previously anthropological perceptions of the continent’s art and opened a metaphorical space in which a fair like 1:54 where African works of art can be presented with no didactic aspirations, and  enjoyed and collected by an audience in celebration of its aesthetic qualities as part of an international body of art.

1:54 had a very successful debut last year. Once more director Touria El Glaoui, buoyed by Koyo Kouoh’s excellent programme of talks for the Forum that compliments the fair, has created a great affair. Equally successful this year, it continues to offer a global  perspective with 16 of the 27 galleries based outside Africa. Still, because the fair was created to provide a platform from which to consider emerging art from across the African continent, one feels it is an important that a significant percentage of the fair remains galleries from the African continent as any less would entirely change its ethos.
In comparison to the other significant art fair I visited this art season, Frieze, where the atmosphere very much reflected the art fair as a brazenly commercial enterprise, , the ambience over at Somerset House was positively soothing, and cerebral. With any collection of art, perhaps moreso – with the bright colour palettes and material choices, of many of the Artists’ on show, there was always the danger of being overwhelmed by the work; however the Somerset House space perfectly complemented the works on display. Across its East and West wing, leading and emerging galleries based in Africa and abroad held court in space redesigned by the architect Rashid Ali and his RA Project outfit. Constituted of separate – rooms, the layout and curation of the space managed to elegantly walk a perfect tightrope between the dynamism and excitement one hopes for in an art fair, and the quiet contemplation and stillness in which to truly consider the works.

Considering its very accessible location in central London – another of the fair successes – is its focus on quality as opposed to quantity though the fair still manage to pack a punch with artists represented in a cornucopia of mediums, including video art which was a new addition to the fair’s repertoire. The Africa/n art scene has steadily maintained an upwards trajectory regarding commercial viability, and in London at least, 1:54 is the high water mark.

Obviously, the issues and challenges surrounding art in Africa, have all factored one way or another into every art work on display; socially, politically, biologically, subconsciously and eagerly. On the whole, there has been a collective move towards more non-figurative work with the long-established October Gallery leading the field; offering up mixed media sculptures including Adejoke Tugbiyele, Flight to Revelation, 2011 and Romuald Hazoumè’s, Ma Poule, 2013. Hazoumè (also presented by Magnin-A) recycled plastic masks are vivid, fun and simply delivered narratives on the concept of the ‘new slave’.
Along with Hazoumè, some of the African art regulars included Rafik El Kamel’s paintings at the Selma Feriani Gallery, Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s photographs at Jack Bell Gallery, Ablade Glover at the October Gallery and Abdoulaye Konatè, at the Primo Marella Gallery. Following on from his much lauded Museum of Contemporary African Art show at the Tate Modern, In Situ presented a Meschac Gaba’s Diamants indigenes, 2009.
There was also a lot of great quality photography on offer including Omar Victor Diop’s El Moro, 2014 on offer at Magnin-A; Musa Nxumalo, Self Portrait, Vaal, Vereeniging, 2009, and Roger Ballen’s haunting Memento Mori, 2012 shown at Afronova. Perhaps the piece that impressed me most was Mystery Skull, 2014, from Mohamed El Baz’s Bricoler L’incurable. Details series, which makes a  simple, yet powerful statement, emblematic of El Baz’s work, which often centres on the literal and metaphorical boundaries between people and their environment.

Sculpture was to be found in the guise of Jems Robert Koko Bi’s oak sculpture, Rebecca (from the series Le Ballet des Chaises), over at Galerie Cècile Fakhoury; Nnenna Okore, Everything Good Shall Come To Pass, 2014 abstract works inspired by local textures and colours; Cameron Platter, Bucket #1 and #2, 2014, glazed ceramics on offer Primo Marella Gallery; Joseph-Francis Sumegnè, Le Balastique 2, 2014 woven materials presented by  doual’art; Arlene Wandera, Untitled, 2013 over at ARTLabAfrica; Hervè Yamguen, L’oiseau boxeur, 2014 doual’art and Sandile Zulu, Spinal Segment, 2014, at the SMAC Art Gallery.

I didn’t spot many overt references made to Contemporary African politics. Perhaps the most obvious reference was made by the multidisciplinary artist, Peju Alatise, who took over Art Twenty One’s space. Using Nigerian cloth for emphasis, her mixed media installations spoke clearly of the country’s present socio-political policies. Missing, 2014, is an especially poignant direct reference to missing girls in Nigeria.

1:54 is in its infancy; however it is a well-timed, well-starred and well-received event that does justice to the new position of African art in the global market.

1:54, Contemporary African Art Fair took place in London, Somerset House, 16-19 October 2014


Ranti Bamgbala