Art fairs can sometimes be daunting. You feel like Alice in Wonderland, trundling and stumbling through a mysterious world of the unexpected, strange, and pleasantly surprising discoveries.
This art fair proves to be no different. Tucked away from London’s bustling main shopping arteries and nestled within its heart is Somerset House, the auspicious venue of the 1:54 art fair.
Through the narrow archway and into the courtyard one finds tall, charcoal-coloured sentries by the artist, Zak Ové. These life-size sculptures entitled, “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”, are reminiscent of Akan and Asante figurines. They stand almost human-like, as sculpted guardians before the African king’s abode.
This is the thread through which history meets art and art becomes history.
Historically, the Somerset house was once the home of British royalty between the 16th and 17th century, before it was turned into the Royal Academy of Arts premises (North Wing) in the 18th Century.
Nowadays, it is still very much linked to various cultural events. In the summer months, it is transformed into the hub for fashion shows, art exhibitions and an open-air public cinema.
But that is not why I am here. Today is all about the 1:54 - the only art fair of its kind in London – and perhaps even on this continent.
1:54 is the brainchild of Touria El Glaoui who started the contemporary African art fair four years ago because she said no such platform previously existed for the African artist. This was true insofar as contemporary African art was largely unknown outside its originating continent and not considered as a valuable commodity in the international art market. This has changed in the last decade.
Since its inception, it has built momentum as the only fair in Europe exclusively dedicated to African art in all its contemporary and post-modernist forms.
The show is dedicated to promoting contemporary art from the 54 African nations represented as one continent – hence the name. Given the sheer diversity within the continent, this is an ambitious and bold undertaking.
The fair is not just about art. There are lectures, films and book launches on the work of the different art practitioners, considering the role of art in the broader discussion of culture and identity.
Inside, the art fair is buzzing with life. The house and all its interconnected pathways reveal - a bit like peeling layers off an onion - the newest offerings from the African continent as well as the Diaspora. This merry band of painters, sculptors and installation artists are represented by over 40 galleries. More than 130 exhibiting artists jostle together then spread out over two floors.
On the ground floor, the photographer, Gideon Mendel Victor was present to answer questions and exchange ideas with visitors. His solo show centred on his fascination with water and his travels to flooded regions and towns in Africa and Asia. He documents the transient but often catastrophic effects floods have on the environments we live in, as well as its ability to submerge and dislocate communities.
Modupeola Fadugba’s large gold and copper-painted canvases grace a second floor gallery space. The paintings of women and children swimming in a sea of metallic colours are breath-taking in their originality. Earlier in 2016, her work was shown at the Dak’ Art biennial art fair in Senegal. She is originally an engineer by training but an artist by vocation. There is little doubt that her work will continue to gain international attention. She is one to watch.
1:54 demonstrates that art from Africa has garnered international attention.
In all fairness, this is not news. Commercially, African art has been doing very well in recent years. Bonhams of London experienced a robust boost in the sale of new art emerging from the continent. In the last two decades, artists such as El Anatsui, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Sokari Douglas-Camp, Chéri Samba and the luminaries of Oshogbo have attracted international acclaim with their works selling for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Rather exceptionally, the fair is not brimming with works by these artists. Many of the artists on show are emerging talents, perched as it were on the cusp of success.
There is a lot to take in at the fair. While this rich microcosm of ideas has a decidedly African vibe, it is tempered with the “not too black” dichotomy we see a lot of in such art shows today. While this should not be a debate about origins or originality, it does bring the question of how do modern Africans define themselves in today’s ever changing and globalised world? The answer is as elusive as the question is broad. No single answer fits all. The road to self-discovery is still very much unchartered and this is why African art has a long and fulfilling journey ahead of it.
Can we all truly share the same history, the same identity and retell our story to still form part of the whole as a continent? Yes, we can. We can at least try.
In the end, humanity is about human beings. We are each part of the same thread that constructs the whole fabric. This is our strength and this is our humanity.
Photo : Zak Ové's “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”