The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair presented its fourth consecutive edition at Somerset House in London (6-9 October 2016) – organised by the Fair’s founding director, Moroccan-born entrepreneur and art enthusiast Touria El Glaoui.
Expanding in size and scale by an increase of 40% since its inaugural edition in 2013, this year’s 1:54 showcased works by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, represented by 40 of the most important gallerists, curators, agents and exhibitors promoting African-inspired artwork around the world.
My main motivation for visiting 1:54 was (primarily) to view the new art installation by British conceptual artist Zak Ové (b. 1966, London) – an innovative sculptor, photographer and installationist of Trinidadian descent, whose artworks I have admired for many years since he first came to mainstream prominence in the UK following a series of high-profile commissions via the British Museum more than a decade ago.
Walking from the Strand through the archway of Somerset House on the Saturday morning of my visit filled me with sheer delight, because his vast assemblage of 40 larger-than-life-sized graphite figural sculptures – titled, “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) – was instantly visible from the main road, positioned in a military-style formation like a modern-day version of the ancient Terracotta Warriors of Xian in China. The hybrid nature of the installation was the deliberate referencing of ancient and modern cultural, political and corporeal themes encompassing the vast historical and geographical scope of the African diasporas dispersed over several continents – from the fashioning of facial features reminiscent of West African (specifically Congolese) figural sculptures, through to each (male) statue positioned with raised hands in a supplicatory, non-threatening pose as if to adopt the stance of the 21st century #Black Lives Matter and #Ferguson is Everywhere anti-racism, equality and social justice movements in the USA and world-wide, articulating the plea “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”
After reading Sean O’Hagan’s thought-provoking preview of the ‘Return of the Rudeboy’exhibition at Somerset House in London – titled, ‘Rude Boys: Shanty Town to SavileRow’ (The Guardian/Observer, 24th May 2014) – I placed this event quite high on my list of top 10 “must see” summer showcases, and managed to get along to view it several months later at the start of its closing week on 18th August.
O’Hagan’s article led me to assume the exhibition would be a largely superficial photographic and soundtrack-based audio-visual presentation about the cultural aesthetics of ‘Rudeboy’ (or ‘Rudie’) fashion. It gave the impression that Return of the Rudeboy would be rich in contemporary illustrative content about people whose fashion today echoes the types of clothing trends and styling associated with the ska music genre in Britain from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. But at the same time (reading through the lines) it also implied that the exhibition would be quite limited in its documented historical and socio-cultural contextualisation about the Caribbean origins, hybridisation and changing identity politics of ska, ‘Rudie’ and ‘2-Tone’ subcultures spanning those decades.
In reality, however, the exhibition proved to be much more complex, layered and rounded than had been described in the Guardian/Observer piece – for several reasons: