Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

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A sculptural installation and photographic print from the series “The Purple Shall Govern” (2013) and the more recent performance installation “Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017), by South African artist Mary Sibande. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House in London, between Thursday 5th and Sunday 8th October. Now in its fifth year, the event featured contributions by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, presented alongside a programme of stimulating talks and panel discussions led by arts scholars, curators, gallerists and cultural commentators drawn from around the world.

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“Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017) – detail from a digital print illustrating a performance installation by South African conceptual artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, SA). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Building on the successes of previous editions of 1:54, shown in London, New York and Morocco since 2013, this edition provided access to a broad range of new works by established artists and emerging new talent from 17 nations – including notable contributions from the celebrated painter and collagist Godfried Donkor from Ghana; textile artist and mixed media installationist Safaa Erruas from Morocco; metalwork sculptor and anti-war activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique; and the internationally renowned textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali, most well-known for creating breath-taking, large-scale ‘offrandes’ out of delicate fragments of fabric stitched together to create multicoloured fine art tapestries.

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Summer Surprise (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou, displayed in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House as a commissioned installation for the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In a similar way to the impression Zak Ove’s commissioned installation piece “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) created a visually arresting centre-piece for the courtyard at Somerset House last year, the major architectural installation shown in the Fountain Court was “Summer Surprise” (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon. This vast, wooden-framed structure is described by the artist as referencing and symbolising the function of a”Toguna” – a traditional public building native to Mali, built for the purpose of discussing community and constitutional issues, and usually located at the heart of village life to enable it to serve as a key meeting point for debate and intellectual exchange.

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Portrait of London grime artist and MC, Olushola Ajose (aka Afrikan Boy) , by Hassan Hajjaj, presented as part of the three-room installation “La Caravane” (2017) at Somerset House. Photo: Carol Dixon.

An important feature of this year’s fair was the interactive installation created by Morocco-born, UK-based artist Hassan Hajjaj, displayed in three rooms adjacent to the terrace on the ground floor at Somerset House. Titled “La Caravane” (2017), this work featured a series of large, full-colour photographic portraits and also a sequence of videos presented as interactive portraits along the length of the central gallery, showing musicians, dancers, singers and poets dressed in colourful outfits and performing extracts of their work in studio settings framed by customised textiles and soft furnishings. This central gallery was also designed as an auditorium, where visitors could sit and listen to the performances as though they were sitting in a Moroccan tea room being entertained by live artists. Continue reading Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

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Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected

The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion – designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, and displayed in Kensington Gardens, London (23 June – 8 October) – represents an architectural structure designed with community gatherings and convivial interactions in mind. Kéré’s harmoniously cylindrical, indigo-blue, textured structure, with its lattice-like wood and metal-framed roof fanning out to form a funnel-shaped sloping canopy,  evokes the atmosphere of a central communal meeting place, with multiple openings overhead for letting in natural light to illuminate the interior while also providing shelter from the rain.

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Serpentine Pavilion 2017, designed by the architect Francis Kéré from Gando in Burkina Faso. Photo: Carol Dixon.

This beautiful artwork, inspired by the broad canopies and buttresses of tropical baobabs, signifies a pluralist space where diverse conversations and opportunities to exchange ideas are welcomed. The pavilion’s design, therefore, serves as an appropriate image through which to introduce and illustrate the overarching theme for this year’s Royal Geographical Society annual international conference – “Decolonising Geographical Knowledges.” This complex and wide-ranging theme, which also served as a call to action, was addressed over the course of a stimulating, four-day event programme of lectures, panel sessions and workshops attracting more than 1000 delegates from around the world.

Given that these geographical discussions  were taking place in Kensington less than a two-minute walk from the Serpentine Pavilion signifies that, similarly to the architect’s desire to create a contemporary equivalent of a central community meeting space where all are welcomed to converge and consider the key issues of the day, the RGS-IBG was symbolically also opening up (and opening out) the institution to invite in a greater diversity of publics (and broader critical perspectives) than had hitherto been seen as integral to geography as a subject discipline, where scholarship pursued by privileged white men from elite schools within the Euro-American academy still dominates most of the academic geographical discourse.

The 2017 Chair of the Conference, Sarah Radcliffe (Professor of Latin American Geography, University of Cambridge) was responsible for catalysing debates related to the theme of decolonisation. Her address drew attention to the various ways geography within academia has begun to provide a platform for considering how institutions established during the colonial era can be transformed into more inclusive and ‘decolonial’ spaces, fully divested of the structural inequalities and power hierarchies that previously allowed elitism, exclusions and discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, nationality, educational background, disability, LGBTQ+ identities to persist and endure long after the end of formal colonial rule. Continue reading Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected

Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Exhibition view of the metalwork installation “Forgotten’s Tears” (2013), by the Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba (b. Kinshasa, DRC, 1967). Photo: Carol Dixon

During mid-August 2017 I was very pleased to visit the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille to view curator Simon Njami’s thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, paintings, films, sculptures and architectural installations by 30 contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the African diasporas. This spectacular and wide-ranging group show – Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope] (Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, France, 6th April – 3rd September, 2017) – was conceptualised and presented as the second chapter (or, ‘Episode Two’) of a curatorial project that began at the Grande Halle de la Villette in east Paris, and was later transposed and repurposed to fit this alternative setting of a disused freight goods railway terminal on the outskirts of Lille.

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The introductory information panel for the exhibition Afriques Capitales [Capital Africas], curated by Simon Njami, displayed at the entrance to Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille. Photo: Carol Dixon (August 2017)
At its heart, Afriques Capitales presented a series of inter-connected art-political, historical and geographical narratives about the push and pull of migration, the precariousness of trans-national journey-making, and people’s hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges as they strive to secure a better existence and improved life chances for themselves and their loved ones as a result of moving to different locations – and, potentially also, alternative environments assumed to provide increased safety, security, sanctuary and/or new opportunities.

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Detail from the architectural installation “I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Since first becoming aware of Simon Njami’s writing and critical analysis of modern and contemporary African art, his editorship of the celebrated art magazine Revue Noire, and his extensive international curatorial practice over the past two decades, I have subsequently followed his progress with keen interest – making regular visits to different exhibition spaces and institutional settings to immerse myself in the stories and assemblages he and his contributing artists generate to provoke new discussions and dialogues about aspects of the universal human condition. All these observations and experiences are, of course, considered and refracted through the complex prism (or ‘optic‘) of colonialism, and its enduring legacies in the present day – reflected upon at the site of the individual (as regards my personal, affective/emotional responses to each artwork); at the level of the nation-state; as a trans-continental conversation between Europe as the site of display, and Africa (including its diasporas) as the creative locus and originating point of departure for these featured exhibits; and also in terms of global discourses about travelling and journey-making to the many elsewheres represented in the featured displays – both near and far; real and imagined.

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“I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

As soon as I walked through the entrance gates at Gare Saint Sauveur and saw the large-scale architectural structure of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s  installation, “I am Free” (2012), I knew I was entering a creative space where the curator had encouraged all the participating visual artists to be bold and expressive on a monumental scale: in other words, giving all the artists and collectives complete licence to think creatively without limits and, in turn, exhort and inspire visiting audiences walking through the exhibition space to respond in kind. In consequence, I required no prompting to run to the top of the temporary staircase erected at both ends of the white-walled, Minaret-like construction to stand on its central platform with my arms outstretched, enacting the declarative statement “I’m Free!” In doing so,  I was also able to imagine that I had become one with the vast, black painted bird’s wings, beautifully and fluidly drawn at either side of the neon lighting, and taken flight into a different realm.

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Calao (2016), by the Malian textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté. The Calao represents a mythical and protective bird that, within the Bambara cultural and spiritual traditions of the past, is believed to carry dead souls to the afterlife. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

I am seldom more satisfied with a gallery visit than on the occasions when you walk into an exhibition space intending to view one thing, and then stumble on something quite unexpected that turns out to be far more interesting than the artwork or display you originally planned to see. The 3rd August 2017 turned out to be one of those days, when my attention and intentions were solely focused on a long-awaited and much-anticipated trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the stunning tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2017).

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Tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014-2017) by Chris Ofili CBE, hand-woven to the artist’s specifications by textile artists from Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The three-panelled artwork was on display at the National Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” curated by Minna Moore Ede (displayed until 28/08/2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The tapestry was based on an original watercolour painted by Chris Ofili CBE, and hand-woven in partnership with a team of textile artists from Dovecot Studios. The resulting panels were then displayed as part of the celebrated exhibition, “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” (Sunley Room, National Gallery, London, 26 April – 28 August 2017).

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Three-panelled watercolour “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014) by Turner Prize-winning British artist Chris Ofili CBE. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The three-panelled tapestry was, of course, as awe-inspiring as the attached pictures suggest. However, the large number of visitors milling in and out of the Sunley Room precluded any opportunity to spend a long period of time quietly contemplating the  scale, splendour and intricacy of this vibrantly colourful piece at my own leisure.

 

Consequently, I changed tack and headed away to make an impromptu visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to spend time browsing new works in the contemporary galleries and the exhibition for the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

2017 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG, London

Among the many beautifully rendered portraits featured in this year’s selection of 53 entries displayed to represent the best of the c. 2,580 entries submitted by artists from 87 countries, the five works that (for different reasons) captured and held my attention were (in no particular order): (1) Corinne, by Anastasia Pollard; (2) Society, by Khushna Sulaman-Butt; (3) Portrait of the artist Jerome Witkin, by David Stanger; (4) Lemn Sissay, by Fiona Graham-Mackay; and (5) Another Fine Day on Elysian Fields Avenue, NOLA, by Eva Csanyi-Hurskin.

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“Corinne”, by Anastasia Pollard. Oil on Board. 255 x 205mm. This painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2017 BP Portrait Award. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The striking portrait of “Corinne” by Anastasia Pollard is actually quite tiny, measuring just 255 x 205mm. However, the captivating beauty of the sitter and the overall balance of the composition made it one of the most arresting images in the entire exhibition. It was also not surprising that “Corinne” was chosen by the NPG as one of the featured images used for a substantial element of the marketing and publicity for this year’s award – featuring on the cover of the catalogue, as well as on one of five large-scale promotional posters for the exhibition. Continue reading Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.

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Delegates at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, Linna Building, University of Tampere, Finland. 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The  conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy

The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.

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Professor Paul Gilroy speaking at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe. Continue reading African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)