As the tagline for the eponymous newspaper runs, ‘We Live in Financial Times’, and nowhere is this more evident than in the central position that art fairs occupy today. Functioning as barometers for the art world, the almost complete omission of African artists and galleries from such events is telling. For while there may be recent increased interest in art from Africa, there seems an overall hesitancy in considering these practitioners on the critical plane of contemporary art; further, perhaps, there is residual terror that critique will become patronising, or render artists as anthropological subjects. For the gallery owners, artists and those supporting the contemporary scenes across Africa, this leaves little alternative but to strike out alone; thus, last week saw the launch of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Somerset House, London.
Upon entering, it is immediately noticeable that 1:54 has neither the look nor the feel of a conventional art fair. It is much smaller than the big-hitters, to be sure, but the difference is felt largely in the curatorial decisions of both the individual galleries and the space as a whole, curated by Koyo Kouoh. Along a corridor, each exhibitor was housed in a separate room, rather than the conventional open booths. Both the layout and architectural features of Somerset House allow for some clever use of repeat motifs, and certain arrangements that implied galleries referring to each other in their choice of display. For example, Magnin-A displayed one of Gonçalo Mabunda’s sculptural ‘Thrones’, composed of weaponry; facing outwards, a similar piece in Jack Bell opposite, as though the works were in conversation. Both Galerie Cécile Fakhoury and Jack Bell showed paintings by Aboudia, and the two large-scale works, placed on either side of the same wall, utilised rather than downplayed this recurrence; further, the decision to stress the presence of this wall was particularly apt for an artist whose canvases explicitly refer to graffiti.
The fair was certainly dominated by the big artist names, by paintings and image-based work, and notable was the complete absence of video and performance. Another key theme seemed to be sculpture that referred to West African ceremonial display. The West’s uncomfortable relationship with African art has roots in the transformation of kinetic objects into a static museum display of ‘primitive’ sculpture; Sokari Douglas Camp, Zak Ové, and Meschac Gaba were just some of the names exploring this notion. Indeed, Gaba’s contribution truly stood out: four uncanny headpieces woven from synthetic hair into the shape of certain cultural references or architectural features, and displayed on mannequins. They formed part of processions staged in various locations, featuring many more of these pieces. The forms of these sculpture-costumes were specific to the location: the Eiffel tower for Paris, for example.
Yet certain things seemed problematic, above all the seamless integration of artists no longer practising with those still working today. Cyprien Tokoudagba’s work was found amidst a number of emerging contemporary practitioners; Gaba’s headpieces were displayed next to a photograph by Malick Sidibé taken in the 1960s. Such issues perhaps represent a minor conflict of interests between the galleries – who might wish to showcase some of their biggest names – and the fair, which, carrying the title ‘Contemporary African Art’, aims to demonstrate the contemporary concerns of practitioners working today.
Hazoumè was another artist represented by more than one gallery, with both Magnin-A and October Gallery – two of the longest-standing galleries supporting art from Africa – choosing to display works by this renowned sculptor. His ongoing masks series anthropomorphise discarded gas canisters, and were displayed by both galleries on parallel walls, facing towards his ‘Exit Ball’ piece. Each of the individual ‘hairstyles’ of the masks referred to a specific female hair symbology in West African tradition. He stressed a desire to enforce traditions that might be lost to Western hegemony and subsumed into, as he described it, a ‘Coca-Cola culture’. Indeed, the visual cues in his work – and in many other artists’ works – attest to a set of references and an art history that often sits outside the Western contemporary shorthand.
Perhaps the Western ambivalence towards African art until recently is attributable to the lack of a familiar critical language with which to frame the works, and a fear of attempting to form one. Thus, without some form of validation, it is much easier to write off pieces as not ‘Contemporary’ than to truly consider where the parameters of this term may lie. With this in mind, both the exhibition and the high-flying talks programme at 1:54 might act as a step towards pushing Western contemporary art out of its comfort zone.
Rebecca Jagoe is a journalist, critic and art writer based in London.