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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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).
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
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.”
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).
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.
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/.