1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, October 2019

The theme for the 1:54 FORUM accompanying the seventh London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (Somerset House, 3-6 October 2019) was “Looking Back and Moving Forward” – titled to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the late Nigerian curator and arts scholar Olabisi (“Bisi”) Silva (1962-2019), founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos.

Detail from “Victimized and Silent” (2019) by Nelsa (“Nelly”) Guambe (b. 1987, Chicuque, Mozambique). Collage on canvas, 1840 x 2750 mm. Nelly’s portraits often depict aspects of femininity and regularly challenge negative representations of the black female body within Western colonialist art history. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Many of the artists, historians and curators contributing to the discussion panels, practitioners’ talks and scholarly presentations over the course of the four-day programme reflected on issues that were central to Bisi’s own scholarship and activism, foregrounding the importance of archival research and archiving as a process within contemporary arts practice, innovative approaches to arts education (as exemplified via the celebrated “Àsìkò” Pan-African arts initiative) and the need to continually raise the profile of women artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora within the art world.

Detail from the series “In the Midst of Chaos There is Also Opportunity” (2017) by South African artist Mary Sibande. The “Red Figure” at the centre of the installation is a representation of the artist’s alter ego, Sophie, who symbolises the healing power of a priestess who continues to offer protection against the negative forces of her nation’s troubled past during South Africa’s post-apartheid era.

Similarly to the 1:54 FORUM, the art fair’s exhibition spaces at Somerset House gave prominence to established women artists in its free-to-view galleries – including a stunning presentation of recent sculptural installations and photographic stills of performances created by Johannesburg-based contemporary artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, South Africa), titled “I Came Apart at the Seams” and shown throughout the Terrace Rooms near the main entrance.

Sculptural installation “A Reversed Retrogress” (2013), by South African artist Mary Sibande featured in the exhibition “I Came Apart at the Seams,” displayed at Somerset House, London. Materials: fibreglass, resin, fabric and steel. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The Lower Ground Floor galleries also displayed a series of thought-provoking, environment-themed photographs from Ethiopian contemporary artist Aida Muluneh’s recent project “Water Life” (2019). Commissioned by the charity WaterAid, and supported by the H&M Foundation, the exhibition comprised 12 photographic tableaux, set in the arid landscapes of north-east Ethiopia, staged to spotlight the harsh realities of water scarcity and its particular impacts on the lives of women throughout the African continent.

A photograph from the series “Water Life” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, displayed at Somerset House, London, 24 September – 20 October 2019.

The vibrant primary colours of the garments and face-paints used in the styling for these tableaux – further reinforced via the use of bright yellow on the gallery walls – contrasted markedly with the aridity of the featured physical landscapes.

Exhibition view of eight photographic images from the series “Water Life” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, displayed at Somerset House, London, 24 September – 20 October 2019.

The 2019 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London brought together 45 galleries representing more than 140 artists from Africa and the global African diaspora. This year’s commissioned Fountain Court installation was titled “Fortress” by Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1979, Luanda, Angola) and was part of his series of architectural structures – “A City Called Mirage” (2014-) – designed to provoke questions about the changing nature of life in cities.

“Fortress” by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, displayed in the Fountain Court at Somerset House as the sculptural commission for the seventh edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In keeping with the tribute to Bisi Silva, there were a number of recently created artworks by artists from Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora – including intricately woven, wall-mounted pieces by textile artist Nnenna Okore, displayed by the Frankfurt-based gallery SAKHILE&ME, through to new sculptures by Niyi Olagunju and Victor Ekpuk presented in TAFETA Gallery’s exhibition area.

“Woman in the Mirror” (2019) by Victor Ekpuk. Powder coated steel, 71 × 91 × 15 cm. Displayed by TAFETA Gallery at 1:54 in London, Somerset House. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Sculptures by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA) also featured prominently in the section curated by James Cohan Gallery – specifically foregrounding a case of c.225 books covered in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textiles and embossed with gold lettering taken from a section of his installation “The American Library Collection (Female Philanthropists)” (2019), as well as his classsically-themed, figural sculpture of a woman with a globe head, “Aphrodite Kallipygos” (2019) – which loosely translates as “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks.”

“Aphrodite Kallipygos” (2019) by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA). Unique fibreglass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, bespoke hand-coloured globe and steel baseplate. Dimensions: 138.4 x 51 x 38 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among my personal highlights were the selection of wall-mounted offrandes de couleurs (“offerings” made from delicate fragments of coloured fabric) by the internationally renowned textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté (b. 1953, Diré, Mali) – including his stunning composition in black and red, “Gouttes Rouges” (2019).

“Gouttes Rouges” (2019) by Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté. Textiles, 350 x 216 cm, presented by Primo Marella Gallery (Milan) as part of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Group portraits by the Addis Ababa-based painter Tadesse Mesfin (b. 1953, Weldia, Ethiopia) also caught my eye and held my attention because of the artist’s subtle use of a muted colour palette to create beautifully rendered street scenes, as exemplified in the artworks “Pillars of Life: Gathering” (2019) and “Pillars of Life: Guleet II” (2019), photographed below.

Detail from the painting “Pillars of Life: Guleet II” (2019) by Ethiopian artist Tadesse Mesfin. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 150 x 110 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among the many artists whose works were completely unfamiliar to me, but which left a very positive impression, were the Tunisian artist and scholar Sonia Kallel (b. 1973, Tunis), South African mixed-media artist Bev Butkow (b. 1967, Johannesburg) and Senegalese painter Ibrahima Dieye (b. 1988, Dakar).

“La Pièce” (2018) by Tunisian artist Sonia Kallel. Perforated paper, 900 x 113 cm. Displayed by AGorgi Gallery, Tunis, at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

For example, Sonia Kallel’s large-scale – yet extremely delicate – perforated paper sculpture “La Pièce” (2018) was presented by AGorgi Gallery, Tunis, and reflected a fine art practice steeped in the arts and crafts heritage of the artist’s home nation. During recent discussions about her quasi-anthropological and trans-disciplinary approach to artistic research and creative production she remarked:

“Working digitally is not only an aesthetic need, it is a language of the present, it offers multiple and infinite possibilities … The question of cultural heritage is essential to me. We are experiencing the loss of knowledge, of historical places … much is disappearing and getting lost … Digital technology allows us to transcribe and transpose data, to develop, to dream … I am interested in the transition from know-how, such as the hand becomes the machine and what happens when I repeat the same gestures digitally.”

Sonia Kallel, interviewed by Aymen Gharbi (2017) for COLLUMINA
A series of mixed media collages by South African artist Bev Butkow, featuring woven dishcloths with beads on printed canvases. Approx dimensions, 50 x 50 cm (each). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Johannesburg-born artist Bev Butkow typically creates mixed media artworks from socially encoded materials, such as dishcloths. Her intricately woven, stitched and enmeshed sculptures and collages are designed to symbolise the artist’s reflections on the gendered labour of women and its invisibility within contemporary society. 1:54’s interpretation literature published about Bev Butkow’s oeuvre stated that she takes a “trans-disciplinary approach to painting, weaving, personal narrative, storytelling and feminist theoretical practices aimed at dissolving the traditional boundaries of genre and knowledge generation.”

Detail from the artwork “Not For Sale #1” (2019) by Ibrahima Dieye (b. 1988, Dakar, Senegal). Mixed media on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

A selection of large-scale paintings and collages by Senegalese artist Ibrahima Dieye was presented by Galerie Cecile Fakhoury and reflected the artist’s interest in representing urban fables, mythical narratives and dramatic stories inspired by a multitude of cultures. The complex amalgamation of hybrid animal-human characters, recurring motifs and other mysterious symbolic figures was illustrative of Ibrahima’s uniquely “poetic, yet ironic gaze on contemporary society,” as shown (above) in the intriguing composition “Not for Sale #1” (2019).

“HT053” (2018) by Ghizlane Sahli (b. 1973, Meknes, Morocco). Silk, plastic bottles, wood and wire. Photo: Carol Dixon.

It was wonderful to view such a broad display of contemporary visual art by both established and emerging artists with links to continental Africa and its global diaspora(s). And, whilst I recognize that a day-ticket price of £25 puts this art fair out of reach for many communities and groups of art enthusiasts, I remain extremely grateful that a large-scale showcase such as 1:54 has now become an annual feature of Somerset House’s events calendar to coincide with Frieze London and other important art fairs in the capital’s cultural programme.

Untitled photograph from the series “Faith” (2015-2019) by Mozambiquan artist Mario Macilau (b. 1984, Maputo), displayed by Ed Cross Fine Art at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London.

For further details about the artists, curators, galleries and other participants contributing to this edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, access to the virtual tour of Somerset House and archived information about past showcases, please visit the website http://1-54.com/.

“Golden Horde, 5” (2006) by Hew Locke (b. 1959, Edinburgh). Mixed media sculptural installation exploring the codes of colonial and post colonial power through the use of weaponry, costumes, gilt gold and silver chains and trophies. Photo: Carol Dixon.
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Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers

Zak Ové’s curation of the group exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now (Somerset House, London, 12 June – 15 September 2019) foregrounds and celebrates the work of more than 100 artists from Africa, the Caribbean region, the African Diaspora in Britain and throughout the wider world who have made significant contributions to the UK’s cultural landscape in the decades since the Second World War.

Entrance to the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now, displayed in the West Wing of Somerset House, London (12 June-15 Sept. 2019). Photo: Carol Dixon.

As the exhibition’s sub-title suggests, its showcase pays tribute to generations of black creative pioneers whose artworks have served to voice, visualise and reflect the complexities, political dynamics, pleasures and challenges of black lived experiences in Britain throughout the modern and contemporary eras of the 20th and 21st centuries, as expressed through painting, sculpture, photography, film, music, literature, architecture, artefact assemblages, fashion and design.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” (2004) by Hew Locke, displayed at the entrance to the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Materials: Textiles, plastic and artificial hair stapled on plywood. 214 x 244 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Arranged into thematic sections, the artworks and archival exhibits were presented in 15 rooms and corridor display areas along the full length of Somerset House’s ground floor West Wing, with different colour-coded interpretation panels and 1970s-style decorative wall and floor designs signifying the transitions between each of the following five “chapters”:
* (1) Motherland – a selection of works about anti-racist resistance and resilience: from the modernist wooden sculpture “Male Standing Figure, The Priest” (1939) by Ronald Moody and the portrait of “Loretta” (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers, through to Richard Mark Rawlins’ digital photo of a clenched fist in a tea cup, “Empowerment” (2018) from his series I AM SUGAR, illustrating a quote from the essay “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” (1991) by Jamaican-British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Installation view of the “Motherland” chapter within the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. The central image is a photographic portrait of the artist’s mother Loretta (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers (b. 1963, London, UK). Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (2) Dream to Change the World – two large galleries filled with politically aesthetic sculptural installations, artefacts, publications and archival materials providing commentaries on anti-racist campaign activities and struggles for civil and human rights spanning many decades. The poem “Ark” by Jay Bernard (a former writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, London) was prominently displayed at the entrance to this section to testify to the material fragility of archives, as well as the challenges of memorialising difficult and traumatic histories (https://jaybernard.co.uk/).

Installation view of Revolutionary Kid (Calf, 2012) by Yinka Shonibare CBE, with the mixed-media artwork “Woke” (2016) by Sanford Biggers in the rear ground, on display as part of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now, Somerset House, London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (3) Masquerade – four rooms addressing the historical origins, symbolism and legacies of carnival in the Caribbean and also in the UK. Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation Carnival Trolley commemorating the founding of London’s Notting Hill Carnival was a focal exhibit within this section.

Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation “Carnival Trolley,” displayed in the Masquerade chapter of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Photo: Carol Dixon.
  • (4) Imaginary Landscapes – featuring works by Lubaina Himid, Cosmo Whyte, Carrie Mae Weems and Che Lovelace that each addressed issues of migration and the many geographical, cultural and psycho-social borders and barriers that have to be negotiated during this process of transition.
“The Enigma of Arrival in 4 Sections. Section 1: Guess Who is Coming to Dinner” (2017) by Jamaican artist Cosmo Whyte. Mussel shells and life vests on a shipping pallet, 168 x 91 x 30.5 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

* (5) Mothership – the concluding section of the exhibition examining the influence of Afrofuturism within the work of artists such as GAIKA, Rashid Johnson and fashion designer Mowalola.

Photograph of the Trinidadian-British photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port of Spain, Trinidad), taken in the 1970s and displayed in the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now.

An overarching theme within the curatorial narrative was a personal and artistic tribute to Zak Ové’s father – internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) – whose works were included alongside contributions from the oeuvres of his artistic predecessors, peers and successors. What united all the featured artists was their inputs within an ever-expanding corpus of outstanding and trailblazing creative practices that have influenced – and continue to positively impact – British cultural life, whilst also producing ripple effects that have helped to transform and diversify the international art canon.

“Afro Lunar Lovers” (2003) by Chris Ofili. Giclée print with embossing and hand-applied gold leaf. 49 x 32 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although my primary catalyst for seeing this exhibition was to review Zak Ové’s selection of paintings, sculptures and photographic works by established and emerging visual artists from Africa, the Caribbean and the global African diaspora, I was equally inspired by the inclusion of literary texts, archival documents, films, video installations and musical soundscapes within each chapter that complemented and contextualised the more traditional fine art pieces.

A still taken from the film-based artwork “Neneh Cherry, Kong” (2018 by Jenn Nkiru.
Photo: Carol Dixon.

A particular strength of Get Up, Stand Up Now was the volume and quality of documentary photographs and film excerpts chronicling black British life throughout the post-war period – with street-based images and group portraits by Armet Francis, Dr Vanley Burke, Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and Horace Ové from the 1960s and 1970s displayed alongside more recent, 21st century photographic and video-based works created in the 2000s and 2010s by (amongst others) Ajamu, Jenn Nkiru, Cooly G and Phoebe Boswell.

Still from the three-channel video, “I Need to Believe the World is Still Beautiful” (2018) by Phoebe Boswell. This work is concerned with the agency of the female nude and the de-centering of the dominant white, male gaze within the visual arts.

Additional photographic installations and video art by influential African American contemporary conceptual artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas added further poignancy to the assemblages and helped to show the historical, socio-political and aesthetic connections and resonances within and between the portfolios of artists of African descent who identify as part of a wider, Black Atlantic diaspora.

Models Dennis Okwera and Wilson Oryema dressed in items from the fashion collection “Malik” by the British designer Grace Wales Bonner. The photograph was taken for the inaugural issue of Luncheon Magazine, 2016. Image credit: Lord Snowden.

Given that artworks by women artists of any ethnic background rarely cover more than 10% of the floor and wall space within mainstream European art institutions, it was encouraging to observe that women of colour represented almost a third of the individual contributors and collectives shown in this group exhibition. A balance of 50:50 would have been the ideal ratio, but c.30% representation by women artists was still far better than the disproportions that have persisted as a problematic norm.

Detail from a portrait of the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2017) by Hassan Hajjaj, which is part of his “My Rockstars” series. Moroccan-born artist Hajjaj was first introduced to photography by Horace Ové in the 1980s. His portraits regularly feature sitters who have been transformed through the use of intricately layered fashion accessories and bright textiles, created in tribute to the past masters of studio photography from the African continent.

Important works by LGBTQI+ artists and arts activists of colour also featured prominently in the selection – with Campbell Addy’s “Engender” (2019) and Ajamu’s “Body Builder in Bra” (1993) standing out as notable highlights.

Photographic art by Ajamu, co-founder of the Black LGBTQ Archive, rukus! (est. 2000).

Archival documentation loaned by heritage organisations such as Autograph (at Rivington Place), Black Cultural Archives, George Padmore Institute and Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) helped to align the exhibition’s artistic, literary and audio-visual content to important, pioneering, art-political campaigns, exhibitions and interventions by national and regional activist groups – from the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM) of the 1960s and early ’70s, the BLK Art Group (Pan-Afrikan Connection) founded in Wolverhampton in the 1980s and the Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998) based in Portsmouth and later east London, through to the more recent research network Thick/er Black Lines established in the capital in 2017.

Archival documents, magazines and photographs displayed in a vitrine as part of the exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now. Photo: Carol Dixon.

An alcove at the end of the West Wing was transformed into a stunning, site-specific installation by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk – titled as a“Temple of Learning”/”Shrine to Wisdom” (2019). Within this space, the artist painted an intricate matrix of white, glyph-based symbols inspired by Nsibidi writing systems from south-east Nigeria onto blue and red surfaces to create an immersive, contemplative reading space for visitors.

Carol Ann Dixon seated in the exhibition’s “Temple of Learning“/“Shrine to Wisdom” (2019)
– a site-specific, immersive installation created by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk.

Get Up, Stand Up Now is, by far, the most thought-provoking and awe-inspiring exhibition I have seen this year, largely because of the sheer volume and depth of archival research integrated into the object assemblages, interpretation literature and audio-visual narratives.

Installation view showing the painting “Carib Ritual IV” (1973) by Aubrey Williams on the left and a “Soundsuit” sculpture by Nick Cave on the right. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I commend Zak Ové and his network of contributors for working in partnership with Somerset House to display this diverse body of work in a mainstream, central London arts venue – as black British, African and Caribbean diaspora art histories have all too often tended to be marginalised and displaced to the peripheries of social and cultural life in the UK instead of being rightfully centralised and acknowledged as core to the nation’s sense of collective, multicultural identity.

Installation view of the exhibition’s Mothership-themed room, showing the mixed-media sculptural installation “Umbilical Progenitor” (2018) by Zak Ové in the foreground and “Falling Man” (2017) by Rashid Johnson on the right. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Get Up, Stand Up Now continues at Somerset House through to 15 September 2019. A 160-page, full-colour catalogue (ISBN: 978 1-9996154-4-4) has also been published to accompany the exhibition, with introductory texts by Zak Ové, Jonathan Reekie and Ceri Hand, as well as essays and other contributions by David A Bailey MBE, Margaret Busby, June Givanni, Vivien Goldman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Errol Lloyd, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Caryl Phillips.

“Crimson and Black” (2019) by LR Vandy. Fibre glass, wood and plastic. Dimensions: 90 x 35 x 20 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Web links and further information:

Zak Ove’s biography and listing of key art works on the Vigo Gallery website – http://www.vigogallery.com/

Exhibition information for Get Up, Stand Up Now on the Somerset House website – https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/get-up-stand-up-now

Review of the 2018 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

The sixth London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House, 4-7 October 2018. Curated by its founding director Touria El Glaoui the event featured 43 international galleries showcasing the work of 130 established and emerging contemporary artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora.

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Exhibition view of sculptural works by Gonçalo Mabunda (b. 1975, Mozambique) and paintings by Ajarb Bernard Ategwa (b. 1988, Cameroon) displayed in Jack Bell Gallery’s presentation at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In keeping with previous editions at this venue a major new sculptural work was displayed in the courtyard to serve as a focal point for the fair. This year’s Fountain Court commission was given to the internationally renowned Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who created three, large-scale versions of an oak sculpture titled “Meditation Tree” (2018). The majestic and beautifully sculpted wooden pieces were inspired by the artist’s memories of a particular type of Acacia tree, known as the Haraz, that is unique to Sudan and found along the banks of the River Nile.

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‘Meditation Tree’ (2018) by Ibrahim El-Salahi – one of three oak sculptures displayed in the fountain courtyard at Somerset House as part of the 1:54 London art commission, 4-7 October 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Inside Somerset House one of the highlights of the expansive exposition was a series of sculptural installations, collages, tapestries, films and photographic works by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga, titled “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions.”  Displayed in three rooms throughout the Terrace Gallery near the main entrance Ruga’s artworks were curated to illustrate and comment upon a range of social and political issues concerned with challenging injustices and inequalities through his use of highly ornate and colourful allegorical compositions visualising how people express diverse and complex identities.

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Detail from the series ‘Queens in Exile’ (2015-17), by Athi-Patra Ruga (b. 1984, South Africa), displayed in the exhibition ‘Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions’ at Somerset House, London (4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019).

Self-defined as a queer Xhosa man Athi-Patra Ruga’s oeuvre serves as a powerful visual narrative documenting the lived experiences and corporealities of people whose opportunities to freely express their sense of self have been challenged and curtailed as a result of discrimination, acts of violence, social exclusion and other forms of oppression operating within local communities, nation states and wider global structures. A particular focus of Ruga’s presentation at Somerset House was to celebrate identities and bodies that have traditionally been constructed as ‘Other’/’non-human’ and positioned outside what is considered to be mainstream  – especially in relation to ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality and social class. Continue reading “Review of the 2018 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London”

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”

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”