1-54’s ninth fair of contemporary African Art features 26 galleries, half of which are making their New York debuts this year. Here in Harlem, artworks are tastefully curated to highlight the vibrancy of a scene in perpetual re-invention. You can hear French, enjoy the Ethiopian-Eritrean food truck parked by the fair’s venue and celebrate the creative expanse of contemporary African portraiture.
Beninese artist Roméo Mivekannin, represented by Cécile Fakhoury gallery, crushed it. In large-scale self-portraits, Mivekannin twists the white canon and colonial gaze to center himself, a Black body in unlikely art-historical contexts. He positions himself as Master and muse—painter and odalisque, artist and European royalty. On sheets the he soaks with sacred herbs and a layer of black paint, Blackness is the base, the foundation of his vision.
In Judith and her servant, after Artemisia Gentileschi, he clones his face onto the two bodies of Judith and Abra, her maidservant, from a Baroque painting that evokes a biblical episode of courage and resistance to oppressors in the Old Testament. Whereas historically the two women look towards a doorway, as if hearing someone come through, Mivekannin’s stares directly at the viewer, proudly and obliquely. The maid holds the severed head of Assyrian general Holofernes, an allegorical murder which amounted to Gentileschi confronting the impossible pain of her sexual assault and rape by former mentor Agostino Tassi. Mivekannin holds the head of the white man unapologetically on his lap—another allegory, this time of colonial violence and the lingering legacies of the rape of Africa.
In Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662), Later Queen of Bohemia, after Robert Peake the Elder, Mivekannin stands front and center in Renaissance clothing, incarnating the ten-year-old sister of future King Charles I. He opts to turn his face at a three-quarter angle which offers more maturity and mystery to his overall stature. The lady’s hands are left white. These are some examples of the stunning portraits on view in which Mivekannin exquisitely questions who gets to inhabit which bodies and the extent to which visual qualifiers perpetuate signs of power and dominance.
Aesthetics of the Black body are an object of persistent inquiry in the photographic works of Moroccan artist Mous Lamrabat, represented by Loft Art Gallery. In hyper-graphic portraits, Lamrabat uses humor and sleek compositions to document fashion and personal expression, as avatars of a new, modern Africa. He plays with traditional and consumerist codes surrounding henna, designer logos, veils and sports shirts. Often reduced to the lens of undesirable migrants and/or second-class citizens in the West, Lamrabat’s Arabs and Black Africans exude effortless chic and regained pride. In conversation with Mivekannin’s pastiches, The girl with the cheesy earrings borrows its title and subject matter from Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, who wears an exotic-looking turban yet seems frail and vulnerable. Instead, Lambarat picks a deep royal blue to define the profile of a strong Black woman wearing a traditional robe, sitting before a desert landscape. Complementary hues of blue and terracotta blur in a grayish sky, denoting a suspended notion of time. It may well be dawn or dusk. A wedge of Laughing Cow spreadable cheese hangs from her right ear.
In this work and others, Lamrabat’s vivid colors serve to denote a fertile imagination and boundless, fearless vitality. They contrast with the quieter works of Senegalese photographer Malick Welli, represented by Galerie Atiss Dakar. Untitled 1 from his “Idol” series shows the simplicity of a single monochromatic, minimalist portrait. The complexion of the young Black model is sublimed by his white garment, black fez hat and light gray, near silver background. Turned three-quarters toward the camera, the man holds his right hand over his heart—a promise of truth and a commitment to ethical personal conduct. Channeling his spirituality with that subtle gesture, the subject wants to demonstrate that he’s honorable and kind to others. It’s a timeless statement, one that transfixes the viewer in a world of constant noise.
Cherishing the beauty of Black women, Cameroonian photographer Angèle Etoundi Essamba (Galerie Carole Kvasnevski) showed a memorable series of feminine portraits. In Déploiement 5, melancholic blue tints the model, a color aligned the traditional fabric she wears. It’s a “hard” softness of cool tones, one that characterizes a tested resolve. Chinaedu Nwadibia, represented by Superposition, also showcased a series of photographs centering the hair of Black women and braiding and manipulating our gaze through color. In Show me the way (Zimuzo), hair and skin are painted with teal pigment. Other times, they are lavender. Along the photos are fibrous sculptures of hair braids, and viewers are drawn to their texture but also to the artificiality of color itself.
Other 1-54 artists have made use of textiles as a medium for dazzling portraits. For instance, Ghanaian artist kwaku yaro (SEPTIEME Gallery) presents several individual portraits, weaving nylon and burlap on polymer rugs. They remind me of Diedrick Braken’s allegorical tapestries narrating African-American mythologies, sometimes using Ghanaian symbols, as well as the creations of Abdesslem Ayed who embroiders portraits and mythological scenes on Tunisian textiles. Here, yaro celebrates African youth and friendship in her depiction of exalted freshness. The rug, commonly unfolded to sit among friends and family, is yaro’s canvas for retro and contemporary compositions. They document silhouettes and fashion—natural Black hair, cute preppy shirts, feminine outfits—in the way that street photography does: fleetingly. She is joined in this by South African artist Nelson Makamo’s large-scale hand-woven tapestry showing a Black girl with red round glasses—the continent’s future, in other words. Meanwhile, Josie Love Roebuck introduces playful couple scenes, such as Not Enough on colorful fabric cloth, and Malian artist Ibrahim Ballo embroiders jeans, creating powerful contrast and textures to honor everyday figures such as in Homme aux Poissons.
In addition to formal portraiture, many artists shown at the fair explored mystical worlds, elevating our art forms to investigate the invisible. Galerie Atiss Dakar presents a fantastic selection of Ousmane Bâ’s paintings. In Le Ballet Aérien, figures drop from the white sky—fallen angels who angered God and were expelled from heaven. Also with Galerie Atiss Dakar, South African painter Themba Khumalo depicts sacred, ceremonial scenes involving spirits, imagined ancestors, and shamans or preachers in shades of Prussian blue. In Umthandazi, two silhouettes emerge from the darkness of a long night. They carry attributes of traditional spiritual beliefs through their clothing and accessories and they embrace interconnectedness—between humans and other spiritual forms. One guides; the other receives. It’s the case in Sikhanyisele 2, as a flow of energy is seen to travel between two bodies.
Amid all these figurative works, Kenseth Armstead’s True North: Feet Don’t Fail Me Now engages with the history of American slavery and the Underground Railroad in abstract form. Occupying an entire floor, his sculptures of wood and steel are dedicated to the people who self-emancipated through the Underground Railroad. Their presence is embodied in the burns on the side of his objects.
Overall, the fair charts a new narrative for African contemporary art, one that is diverse, proud and accomplished. Rarely has a fair seemed so well-rounded and cohesive—a tribute to these incredible talents who deserve more U.S. shows.
1-54’s Annual Fair of Contemporary African Art is on view at the Malt House in the Manhattanville Factory District (439 W 127th Street) through May 21.