Following the unprecedented success of 1:54 London in 2019 and Marrakesh in February 2020, early October founding director Touria El Glaoui opened the 8th edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Part I & II will take you through Somerset House.
I FELT LIKE A BLACK GUY FROM NEW YORK
TRAPPED IN PERU
Review by Zoltan Alexander
Featured galleries and artists
Leila Alaoui (Marrakesh) at Somerset House (London), Moustapha Baidi Oumarou at Afikaris (Paris), Prince Gyasi at Nil Gallery (Paris), Josue Comoe at Galerie Number 8 (Brussels)
1:54 LONDON 2020 / © video by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA
I felt like a Black guy from New York trapped in Peru?!? Well, undoubtedly but it makes sense.
It is always challenging to write about art fairs especially when it comes to 1:54, which galleries we are going to select, who are the outstanding artists of our time.
During the past six-eight months, when people had to stay at home and could not travel, our format of reviews had radically changed. Whilst reviews should normally stick to brief descriptions and one or two pictures, (apparently readers cannot cope with more), we have decided to take another direction, break these limits, make the articles excessively long, apply dozens of photographic images, stories, videos and interviews, giving an option to those who are not in the position to visit galleries, art fairs or simply London.
In any other year, Frieze London in Regent's Park heralds the start of the most exciting week of the season with openings, private events, parties and gallery dinners. Frieze usually attracts over 60.000 people; the city is buzzing with the crazy art crowd from all over the world and there are lots of boozy nights.
This year, the mood was very different. The city was sombre and silent with deserted streets and austere galleries. Almost all art fairs were cancelled, presentations went online and just a few private openings were held in situ in galleries. Half faces and masks became the norm, parties went on Facetime and the air was charged with new rules and regulations instead of lightless of being as the Tier 02 of lockdown seemed quite imminent.
Despite current circumstances, founding director Touria El Glaoui went ahead and brought the 8th edition of 1:54 to Somerset House in early October as she has done it in the past seven years with much success. The first edition was in 2013 in London followed by New York and Marrakesh.
On the global art scene, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair has established itself as a leading, unique voice in contemporary African art.
THE ART OF SCALING-DOWN, SCALING-UP
Unlike in previous years, the art fair was scaled down to 30 international galleries but it was definitely scaled up in quality. Fewer presentations meant more options and time to establish a closer and more intimate relationship with galleries and artists. The art fair was showcasing more than 110 established and emerging contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora, working in a wide variety of mediums and from a range of geographical backgrounds.
In 2020, 1:54 created a special edition with a physical exhibition at Somerset House and with the participation of Christie’s at their headquarters and online, offering an opportunity to engage with compelling works in person and on the internet.
1:54 ONLINE, powered by Christie’s, offered virtual viewing rooms that featured over 600 works from international exhibitors from across Africa, Europe and North America.
1:54 HIGHLIGHTS, a curated pop-up exhibition, included one seminal work from each exhibitor at Christie’s headquarters at King Street.
The art fair was once again accompanied by 1:54 FORUM with its extensive programme of artists’ talks, film screenings and panel discussions curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba under the title, “I felt like a Black guy from New York trapped in Peru.”
WHERE CHAOS COULD NOT ENTER
For everybody’s relief, throughout the art fair, 1:54 was implementing in collaboration with Somerset House with strict safety measures to ensure everyone’s health and security by time-slot ticketing, a one-way circuit with fewer people and VIP access.
“Somerset House functions more like a museum with its safety measures and we wanted to create one of the safest places to visit and enjoy the art fair" Touria El Glaoui
LEILA ALAOUI / Marrakesh
In collaboration with 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at the Charles Russell Speechlys terrace room series, the photographic exhibition “Rite of Passage” of Leila Alaoui opened simultaneously at Somerset House and continues as a standalone show throughout the winter season until 2021.
It is the most outstanding exhibition and the first major UK retrospective of the late French-Moroccan photographer. Alaoui was a rising star in the world of documentary photography, focusing her lens on the plight of marginalised groups around the world. In 2016, whilst working on a women’s rights campaign with Amnesty International, Alaoui was caught in gunfire during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and three days later, at age 33, died of her wounds.
Honouring Alaoui's photographic practice, the exhibition includes three of her defining series of works “Les Marocains”, “No Pasara” and “Natreen”, as well as Alaoui’s final unfinished video work “L’Île du Diable - Devil’s Island”, exploring the lives of a 1960s generation of dispossessed migrant workers in France.
Opening with the Alaoui's most celebrated series, “Les Marocains” (2010-2014), the exhibition positions the viewer face-to-face with life-sized portraits of the men and women Alaoui met during her travels across her home country of Morocco. Presented on black backgrounds, these portraits demand that we focus on every detail, the appearance of the people, the multi-layered, bright coloured garments, head coverings and jewellery.
“The global issues that Leila Alaoui chose to highlight in her work, including migration, displacement, and rapid globalisation, remain as current now as they were when she tragically died,” said Grace Perrett, exhibitions manager at Somerset House. “In bringing together documentary and aesthetic sensibilities in her work, she creates a bridge between the viewer and the people she met, encouraging understanding and empathy.”
Acclaimed for capturing the unseen stories of individuals and communities displaced by conflict and unrest, Alaoui’s photography offers an intimate portrait into rich cultural identities and resilient societies facing uncertainty. The subjects of her works are pictured across the contemporary Mediterranean landscape and beyond, from Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in Lebanon to young North Africans seeking an alternative future in Europe. Alaoui’s images are both informed yet artistic, giving a human face to people who often become lost and misrepresented behind the waves of statistic numbers and news coverage.
Before I started writing this article, I went through the photographs I had taken during the art fair and noticed without being conscious about it, that I was drawn to images of the void where the artist deliberately left part of the painting and the faces blank or a part of the bodies was unfinished.
Most of the time, the void embraced the anonymous characters without a face on an extremely simplified background. These artists also shared something together; almost all of them were involved in helping their community and country, which is purely remarkable considering how young these artists are.
Here is our selection at Somerset House:
AFIKARIS / Paris
While a few months back Paris-based gallery Afikaris needed some introduction, following their participation with 1:54 Marrakesh with Cameroon artist Jean David Nkot, AKAA in Paris, 1:54 New York and Art Paris, the gallery is now inseparable from contemporary African art. In fact, there is no other gallery that represents their artists more passionately than Afikaris and the way its founding director Florian Azzopardi does it.
For many years Azzopardi travelled around Africa to discover emerging artists mostly from Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Morocco and started collecting their works. He had the eagle eye to find hidden talents. In 2018, Azzopardi decided to conciliate his passion for art and Africa and launched Afikaris. His vision to become a reference gallery for contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora came true.
Afikaris focuses on supporting artists who live on the continent both well-established and not yet discovered. The gallery, which operates from its Paris based location (by appointment only), is globally active due to international art fairs, travelling exhibitions and their strong online presence.
Florian Azzopardi is not only passionate but also dedicated. He wanted to take part in 1:54 London, and despite the current circumstance in the UK, he came two weeks prior to the art fair’s opening to fulfil the latest quarantine rules of the British Government. He came with a group show presenting four African artists, Moustapha Baidi Oumarou, Salifou Lindou, Ousmane Niang and Nyaba Ouedraogo who propose their vision to see the world pushing the viewers towards the future.
How do artists challenge our perception of Time and Space? Afikaris delivered the answer not just at Somerset House but throughout a VR exhibition on their website created for their online visitors.
AFIKARIS presents Moustapha Baidi Oumarou / Cameroon
Moustapha Baidi Oumarou is a born humanist, embarrassingly young and immensely talented. He was born in Maroua, in the extreme north of Cameroon. Since his early years, he developed a sense of observation allowing himself to look at life with a certain philosophic approach. Following his practice in silkscreen printing, he decided to focus on painting and in 2013, at the age of 17, he won the third prize in Visual Arts of the Yawalta Maroua Festival. Moustapha Baidi Oumarou is undoubtedly a conscious and humanist painter. His paintings are always positive, uplifting and very optimistic. By staging his anonymous characters without a face in an extremely simplified décor and a monochrome background, with strong colours, half-finished details and a variety of flowers, Moustapha Baidi Oumarou makes his humanist message a universal one. Through his paintings - no matter of the colour of the skin or nationality - everybody can identify themselves with moments of joy and love.
“I aim to paint the joyful aspect of life. My characters represent the “flower man”, they embody moments of humanity, moments of joy and love. I am also inspired by the contemporary wave of life."
"In my work, I want to put forward this humanist side we all have inside us. I draw and paint the world with my most beautiful and powerful palette of colours. I am a politically engaged artist.”
Moustapha Baidi Oumarou
NIL GALLERY / Paris
Nil Gallery breaks convention. The Paris based gallery was established in 2016 by Paul William and Hugo Zeitoun. Both founders share their eclectic vision of contemporary art through travelling around the world, discovering innovative art and emerging artists.
The gallery’s aesthetics are vibrant, ground-breaking and diverse, exposing international collections to an atypical audience. The gallery represents a diverse selection of emerging and well-established artists from Africa, Asia, Europe including Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast, France, Spain, China and South Korea.
In 2020, at Somerset House, the gallery presented three significant artists: photographer Prince Gyasi from Ghana, Nigerian sculptor Alimi Adewale and Yéanzi from Côte d'Ivoire.
On a personal note: each time I enter Nil Gallery’s space with Price Gyasi’s vibrant, hyper colourful photographic prints I cannot escape the charm of his images. Barely 24-year-old, Gyasi has been already causing a sensation at the biggest contemporary art fairs and been wildly collected in the four corners of the earth.
Prince Gyasi, also known as Prince Gyasi Nyantakyi is a Ghanaian international visual artist who creates bold, colourful images that aim to make suppressed narratives more prominent and reveal fundamental human emotions that are tied in with a person’s life, family and childhood. Gyasi has immense talent, drive and inspiration. He is inspired by the stories of marginalised groups, those pushed to the fringes of society; the Accra cityscape and its inhabitants are the frameworks in which these experiments take place.
From his early years in photography, still a student, he began photographing his friends with what he had and realised he could use a phone as a professional tool and as a mean of expression. From documentary to staging, he directs his models in immaculate compositions where, as a painter, he works on a whole monochromatic palette and flat areas. Gyasi deliberately stays away from professional photographic equipment, choosing his iPhone capturing and juxtaposing forms and silhouettes against brightly altered landscapes and vivid backgrounds. His subjects give off a particular feeling of strength and resilience.
The President Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo bought one of his works, Vanity Fair made him one of the nine visual artists to follow in 2018 and Apple Inc. commissioned him recently to work on a project "A Great Day In Accra" to push the hip-life music genre in Ghana to the world. Besides, he is the co-founder of BoxedKids, a non-profit organisation, which helps underprivileged children from Jamestown district in Accra to get a better education.
Price Gyasi’s art showcases the nobility and grace of black skin. Simply stunning.
GALERIE NUMBER 8 / Brussels
Just when you do not expect a surprise, it strikes. There was nothing exhibited on the walls, just a large family table occupied the middle of the room. The table was covered with dozens of photographic prints presented by Galerie Number 8 from Brussels. I have, of course, already come across with most of these images on different occasions but at Somerset House, they were all laid out on a table. No wonder the installation was called “Family Reunion”.
Galerie Number 8 is a young contemporary art gallery representing a globally diverse roster of emerging artists in photography and mixed media. The installation reflected a fresh approach and dynamic creativity of the gallery’s artists and an effort to encourage people to collect photography differently. A quarter of the sales were donated to The Black Curriculum.
The gallery was established by Marie Gomis-Trezise who passionately brings a new wave of photographers together from Africa and the African diaspora, all of whom have an unflinching gaze and a desire to dismantle cultural and sexual barriers and constructs. Since its launch in 2016, the gallery has championed many art fairs including AKAA Paris, Dak’art Off Biennale, Unseen, Les Rencontres D’Arles, 1:54 London.
GALERIE NUMBER 8 presents Josue Comoe / Paris
Born in Ivory Coast Josue Comoe lives and works in Paris. He came to France when he was 7. At the age of 16, he started to model for fashion and luxury brands such as Chanel. He subsequently trained in photography at the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, however, it was through painting and drawing, that he decided to express himself. Reaching for transcendence, Comoe portrays the souls and the complexity of our beings with his own codes and makes up his own pieces as pictures, impressive portraits, upfront paintings built from this dark light from where emerges shapes.
"I want, to create pieces which call for transcendence, pieces that yearn for the better, something good and great. There is an important part of spirituality in my pieces."
Besides his photographic practise combining, rhythm and vibration, Comoe draws faces with powerful graphic lines where the black ink of his ballpoint pen creates an abyssal depth on the surface. It is in this mystical dimension that Josue's art is expressed. It is appropriate to observe it as a mirror involving an infinite quest for self and the other.
His first exhibition, in April 2018, was a great success. Since, Comoe has shown his work in Paris, Marseille, New York, Berlin and at 1:54 London. The French media declares him as the "new iconoclastic and promising Artist".
At the age of 84, Mohamed Melehi, the key member of the Casablanca Art School passed away this week, and although his work was not exhibited at 1:54 London at this time, we decided to publish one of his striking paintings.
Influenced by American hard-edge abstraction, as well as minimalist and pop trends, Melehi departed on a journey of his own, defining a style that expands into cosmic dimensions. He radically questioned cosmopolitan abstraction and art pedagogy within the context of post-colonial Africa. He was an influential figure in Moroccan modernism.
His work has been the subject of many exhibitions throughout the world, and several retrospectives have been devoted to his career. Among the latter is the current exhibition by the Alserkal Foundation in Dubai, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech, 1:54 Marrakesh 2020 and in “Op Art in Focus” at Tate Liverpool.
To be continued next week, in PART-II.
Photo-montage by Zoltan Alexander
Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Photo © Courtesy of Josue Comoe
by Galerie 8
Photo © Courtesy of Nonzuno Gxekwa
by THK Gallery
Photo-montage by Zoltan Alexander
Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Photo © Courtesy of Josue Comoe
by Galerie 8
Photo © Courtesy of Nonzuno Gxekwa
by THK Gallery
1:54 LONDON 2020
/ Somerset House / The Strand, London WC2R 1LA, UK
8 - 10 October 2020
Tickets: invitation only with strict safety rules/reserve a time-slot
/ The Strand, London WC2R 1LA, UK
“Rite of Passage” by Leila Alaoui
11 October 2020 - 28 February 2021 Tickets: £10 or pay what you can / reserve a time-slot