Thirteen Artists Whose Work Stole the Show at 1-54 New York

In this recap of the contemporary African art fair, our correspondent highlights the best booths and the must-watch talent.

A painting of grouped up people in varying shades of blue
Nabil El Makhloufi, Milky Way I, 2024; Acrylic on canvas; 63 x 47 1/4 in / 160 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the artist and gallery

1-54 moved to Chelsea this year, leaving behind the cozy atmosphere in Harlem for the less intimate—and more conventionally dull—art fair vibe at the Starrett-Lehigh Building. While the more central location did offer the benefit of attracting a greater number of visitors during Frieze Week, the more than thirty domestic and international galleries represented still reported mixed sales on closing day.

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Setting aside the venue change, this year’s 1-54 in New York had a lot to offer. These seven booths, in particular, really stood out.

The African Art Hub (TAAH)

A striking portrait of a leaning figure clad in draped gold fabric
Ibrahim Bamidele, Against Hope, We Live in Hope (2024); Fabrics, gold leaves and oil on canvas; 101.70 x 127 cm (40.04 x 50 in). Courtesy of the artist and gallery

UK-based TAAH presented the works of two artists in a show titled “Strength in The Silent Storm.” Nigerian Ibrahim Bamidele and South African Reggie Khumalo mixed portraiture with storytelling and texture in scintillating vignettes of reenchanted lives. Bamidele takes inspiration from European art history and traditional print fabrics to create multilayered works interrogating representation, Black aesthetics and social issues. In Against Hope, We Live in Hope (2024), Divination (2024) and Private Space II (2024), eyes linger on the yellow drapery hugging the models’ intensely pigmented skin. This high contrast is sublimed by the artist’s confident brushstrokes. The paintings exude the physicality of sculptural works while subverting canonical motifs of Western art.

Khumalo also elevates material culture, among which fabrics escape the painting’s frame to reclaim an autonomy. His female portraits, such as Never Alone I (2024) honor a matriarchal lineage and anchor the individual within a broader filiation. Ancestors, family and friends hover above and behind in a leafy décor to quietly give strength.

Berman Contemporary

What first draws our gaze to Berman Contemporary’s booth is its bold monochromatic curation. Luminescent black dominates one side where “trans-dimensional farmer” artist Cow Mash erected totemic sculptures and altars somewhere at the intersection of Pierre Soulages and Simone Leigh. Mash identifies as a cow; she adopted the name. The hands of her characters are disproportionately large, hinting at farm work and manual labor, large teats symbolize prosperity and leather inserts evoke the continued influence of the nurturing animal.

This communicates in extremes with a more complex exploration of desaturation and depigmentation led by Athenkosi Kwinana. Living with Albinism, her soft color pencil-drawn self-portraits dive into the pain of holding a mirror. Inspired by selfies, they interrogate beauty standards and the stigmatized life at the margins with sensitivity and depth. In her native South Africa, people living with Albinism are regularly persecuted due to traditional beliefs. As a result, they often withdraw from society and Kwinana documents a painful diary of isolation. Both artists are joined by Hazel Mphande’s focus-shifting monochromatic photographs exploring mental health and trauma.

Galerie La La Lande

A piece of textile art hanging on a wall
Installation view of one of Aïcha Snoussi’s 1-54 contributions. Photo by Farah Abdessamad

First-time participant Galerie La La Lande chose to highlight the works of a single artist, Tunisian Aïcha Snoussi. In doing so, we are stepping into Snoussi’s fictional fragments of ancestral memories and genealogies in a cohesive multi-media installation. Dominated by a sepia palette, pieces of fabrics (RITUAL TUNICS OF LOVE AND RESISTANCE West and north Africa, West Asia 5k B.C, 2024) hung like resting banners on the wall revealing enigmatic signs and language into their folds. Snoussi’s loose lexicon reminds of the initiated grammar of Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi. Yet they also include representations of human forms and other more abstract, symbolic silhouettes. The lined-up cloths, together with tools and votive-like offerings arranged on a long central table, seem to be artifacts excavated from an archeological site or salvaged from a shipwreck. Dimly soteriological, there is a conflicted notion of erasure and survival inscribed into the works, which also expands the realm of identity and geographies.

LIS10

A woman stands with arms folded against a pink wall with drawings of muscled arms coming out of her head
Laetitia Ky, Pow’hair (instead of power), 2022; C-print, mounting on diasec-plexiglass satin; 75 x 50 cm, Edition of 5 + 2 AP. Courtesy of LIS10 Gallery

Two female artists were showing at LIS10 gallery. Laetitia Ky from Ivory Coast and Tope Fantunmbi from Nigeria express in photography and painting the visual potency of Black hair. Ky creates gravity defying sculptural works with hair, used as avatars of feminist agency and empowerment. Hair is reclaimed as an extension of the self, a “hairtistry” and activism exposed in iconic images. Against pastel backgrounds—pink, yellow, beige—Ky’s hair morphs into a pan-African manifesto and a call to respect women. For example, the words “be sexy and shut up” can be read above her head as a societal injunction to remain docile to the male gaze. Fantanmbi’s depiction of hair is less self-assured, more affective. Hair styling is an act of love and transmission, rendered in vivid, enamored tones.

Gallery Nosco

An old fashioned black and white photo of a man and a woman on a stoop with various overlays
Januario Jano, Untitled (The Last Royals), 2022; Mixed textile, Transfer onto unprimed canvas, acrylic, wool, calico, hand sewing; 180 x 110 cm/70.87 x 43.31 in. Courtesy of the artist and gallery

The mixed textile works of Angolan artist Januario Jano at Gallery Nosco’s booth dazzle. They fight against amnesia; the images want to be seen and heard. In Untitled (The Last Royals), 2022, we study a couple in regalia. Their image is transferred onto unprimed canvas. Using a technique of collage adorned with blue wool, the image carries a historical sheen while superimposing narratives. Who is this couple, those “last royals”?

Similarly in Untitled M0010, 2021, a single portrait raises questions on provenance and colonial legacies. The feel of the image evokes colonial-era postcards that intrusively bared their exotic subjects at the border between ethnographic interest and pornographic lust. One can read the description “a native maiden” below the woman’s photograph. Textile frames the image with dignity and honor—perhaps an attempt by the artist to shield her body from predatory intentions. As if conversing, Caio Marcolini’s twisted brass wires embody the sinuous roads toward postcolonial healing.

Vigo Gallery

Vigo lends its booth to Ibrahim El-Salahi’s “Pain Relief” series. Battling sciatica and Parkinson’s disease, the great Sudanese modernist resurrected in form the small-scale drawings he used to make during his arbitrary imprisonment in a Khartoum jail in the 1970s. Then using a smuggled pencil, El-Salahi used to draw on repurposed cardboard or envelopes, the outcome of which was both quick and urgent. This restriction, reenacted in this series, channels the will to overcome limitations. Presented across the walls of the booth, they evoke the tightness of a prison cell and represent multiple screams, multiple windows. The abstracted forms carry a ritualistic dimension, that of controlling the line work, of feeling the pressure of the pencil against the surface. Often intricate, they integrate language with physical, imaginary and syncretic landscapes. As with the past, the drawings and the artist want to be set free.

NIL Gallery

Presenting artists from northern Africa and Ghana, NIL gallery invites the viewer to examine the ways that identity can be celebrated and remembered. “Dry Land,” a series by Moroccan photographer Sara Benabdallah, rejects common passive and lascivious tropes attached to women from the Maghreb. Wearing a blue gown with moon, crescent and star motifs in Labsa Lakbira (2024), the model confronts the camera; she’s in charge. Her attire is wedding-like but there is no partner. Her stance is that of a fiercely independent woman.

Identity is more nostalgic and spectral in the work of Nabil El Makhloufi in which young men are overshadowed by a viridian blue haze, such as in Milky Way I (2024), which at times suggests a verdigris patina over suspended time. The painting underscores male friendship as well as the evanescence of adolescence and young adulthood. Do these memories fully vanish? What remains afterward?

Thirteen Artists Whose Work Stole the Show at 1-54 New York