“I feel like everyone wants me to give them some drama about this show,” Touria El Glaoui, Founding Director of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, said with a laugh, “but it’s actually been one of the easiest set-ups…with New York, there’s this window of opportunity and visibility for the artists and a unique engagement with institutions that you don’t really see in any other city.”
1:54 was founded and organized by Moroccan curator Touria El Glaoui to improve the representation of contemporary African art worldwide. Now, 1:54 is the foremost art fair dedicated to contemporary African art in the primary art market, showing in London during the October Frieze Week since 2013, and 1:54 NY during the May Frieze New York since 2015. Entering its third year in New York, 1:54 NY is showcasing over 60 emerging and established contemporary artists, bringing 19 international galleries together from 10 countries.
1:54 is a ratio that runs parallel to the entirety of the fair’s mission, representing the entirety of Africa: 1 continent, 54 countries. As the title suggests, 1:54 tries to preserve rather than blend together the differences between each country’s histories and cultures. Taking a look at this year’s 1:54 NY, the fair exemplifies its goal in representing individual countries, illustrating local development with global engagement, while connecting to common themes such as female representation, a hugely controversial topic in America as well as worldwide.
The role of gender identity and the fragile state of humanity come up in many of the pieces, always based from the African perspective, which within these topics play a fascinating role. For instance, Lawrence Lemaoana, an artist from South Africa represented by Johannesburg-based Afronova Gallery, creates graphic works that critically engages with the media in present-day South Africa. He views the relationship between media and the people of South Africa as extremely problematic and expresses this view through his trademark cynicism emblazoned on kanga fabric, a traditional fabric with its own complex history. In one of Lemaoana’s kanga canvases at 1:54 NY, the phrase “MY FATHER WAS A GARDEN BOY” reflects upon the time of Apartheid when the easiest job for a man to get was a gardener, and those who worked as gardeners were called “garden boys” by their white employers. Lemaoana brings up a part of South African history on a piece of fabric that lines modern day streets at markets. Kanga fabric is also considered to be a female cloth, so along with telling the story of his father in the past, Lemaoana is toying with gender identity and who the use of this fabric is truly for.
Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s diasporic view and love for the fusion of opposites creates an upfront look into micro- and macro-relationships. She was born in the United States but currently lives in Nigeria (and is represented by London-based gallery 50 Golborne), allowing her to mold the experience of a life spent between two countries. Her delicate lines build private and public scenes on trace architect paper, the translucency of the background and fragility of the paper’s surface translating to a bigger idea of the delicacy of humanity. Just like in Lemaoana’s work, Ogunji is playing with bigger topics that are experienced worldwide but adds personal elements such as her life as a Nigerian-American woman.
Someone to keep an eye on? Nigerian artist Ndidi Emefiele (featured image). Represented by London-based gallery Rosenfeld Porcini, her work is confrontation and humorous, mixing the contemporary (cut-outs taken from magazines or printed from Instagram) with the traditional (Nigerian dress colors or patterns found in modern settings). The pieces showcased at 1:54 NY hold a message of female empowerment, while the glasses found on most of the girls act as a layer of protection from the world, particularly the “male gaze”. In her 2017 piece Taxi, the exposure of the subject’s skin in comparison to the Matisse-like figures dancing in the background paintings is just one of the contemporary vs. traditional comparisons that can be immediately interpreted. Emefiele confronts popular topics such as gender as a social construct and the portrayal of female bodies within the media while incorporating traditional patterns, foods, and stances from her Nigerian roots.
1:54 NY does an incredible job of not only representing separate African countries but respecting those differences while creating worldwide topics that can be picked up by anyone who comes to visit the fair.
May 5th – May 7th 12-8pm
Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street), Brooklyn