In the hullaballoo of London’s Frieze Week, the slick and rather discreet 1-54 contemporary African art fair can slip by unnoticed. Smartly tagging onto the much larger fair without quite stepping out of its shadow, it often ends up being a blink-and-you-could-miss-it event. This was the fair’s eleventh year in the city, and it was the biggest event 1-54 has ever put on, with 60 international galleries (a third of which are from the African continent) showing more than 170 artists across three floors. Nestled on the northern bank of the Thames in central London, its seat at Somerset House was impressive in scale, though certainly not unabsorbable and still decidedly smaller than Frieze a few miles further north.
Immediately greeting you as you walk into the 18th-century courtyard is the annually commissioned centerpiece of the fair—this year, an installation by Moroccan artist Amine El-Gotaibi.
His angular sculptures emit a gentle amber light and wisps of smoke, evoking something both natural and alien. They resemble spaceships and scattered dates or kola nuts, and the mirrors inside reflected visitors taking selfies in fractured shards of glass.
A recommendation from a staff member prompted me to start my route around the fair on the ground floor in Somerset House’s west wing, where there is a superabundance of figurative painting in which the use of African textile and fabric patterns is common. There is very little video or performance on show anywhere at 1-54, and for this reason LOOTY by Chidi Nwaubani (which stands very close to the entrance of the west wing) is particularly striking.
In LOOTY, Nwaubani uses digital scans to recreate historical artifacts like Benin Bronzes or the Rosetta Stone and then repatriates these counterfeited objects to their places of origin. The work is funny and tongue-in-cheek and establishes what becomes an obvious theme throughout the fair: the reckoning or reclaiming of Africa and Europe’s shared art history.
I see it again and again. Amani Bodo’s painting at Primo Marella shows 17th-century white men leaning over a carved wooden African figurine. Roméo Mivekannin for Cecile Fakoury plays in the sandbox of French art history, mixing and splicing Édouard Manet’s Olympia and Marie Guillaume-Benoit’s Portrait d’une Négresse before plastering his face over it. Cubist works abound; originally inspired by traditional African art, the movement is recouped by several contemporary African painters, including Salah Elmur at Vigo and Souad Abdelrassoul at Circle Art Gallery.
In the galleries on the lower floor, there were more stylish, decorative works and what appeared to be a younger, non-art-world crowd. These were pieces you could easily imagine on your living room wall. Hannah Traouré presented Anya Paintsik, whose unique textile art graced the cover of World of Interiors last December. Ayogu Kingsley at Eclectic Contemporary presented paintings by African legends such as Fela Kuti and Chinua Achebe. At the back end of the space, Afrobeats musician Mr Eazi offered visitors an auditory-visual experience in which songs from his album were accompanied by equally loud and fun paintings.
1-54 London was certainly a success in and of itself—the show drew scores of young collectors. I also couldn’t help thinking about its impact on the individual connoisseur. This edition introduced me to several galleries and artists I had never heard of, and the fair will hopefully continue to provide a platform for rising stars sometimes overlooked… talents such as April Kamunde, who cut through the noise and stopped me dead in my tracks with her luscious, light-soaked figuration.