The name of the fair, 1:54, refers to the geography of Africa. One continent, 54 states, many of which are represented at the fair thanks to art galleries, foundations or nonprofit projects. Started in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui, !:54 has rapidly become the international reference point for modern and contemporary African art. Touria El Glaoui tells us how it happened…
Can you introduce 1:54? How did the fair start, what prompted you?
As a platform dedicated to promoting contemporary African art, 1:54 is the first of its kind in Europe and the US. The inaugural edition took place at Somerset House in 2013, but its conception began much earlier.
Launching 1:54 was driven by a desire for a sustainable, yet flexible platform that would bring contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora to an international audience. I hoped that the fair would act as a consolidated space for galleries and art spaces to showcase the incredible talent of emerging and established artists from the continent, from the diaspora and those connected to Africa. As an art fair, I believe that 1:54 is an unrivalled opportunity to raise artists’ profiles, lend visibility to their career and initiate top public commissions.
Indeed/For sure. 1:54 now has two editions, a very established one in London and one in New York, which is on its second year. Can you please summarize the differences between these two editions of the fair?
Each edition is sensitive to its surroundings. Pioneer Works is more intimate in scale compared with the London edition. As an art space Pioneer Works is incredibly active, with a creative, local community already invested in engaging with its programme. Somerset House is different in that respect, but benefits from its architectural status as a national treasure and as 1:54’s ‘home’; in London it’s formed in and of itself. New York is exciting for us because it’s a different audience and yet there are many visitors invested in 1:54 who manage to experience both the London and New York editions, which is special. With both editions, we’re in a good position with Frieze taking place concurrently and working with Artsy allows us to expand our outreach even further in an online capacity.
African art is well known internationally and is more and more often chosen by curators for exhibitions and biennials. But 1:54 has changed the prospective of the art market. The fair has become the starting point for deeper reflection on the African art market and on art collecting…
Institutional interest toward African artists is significant in the States, and in New York alone there are several museums dedicated to showing artists from Africa and the diaspora. This makes a huge difference in terms of interest towards the platform, our collector base and the acquisition of artworks.
What relationship does the fair have with museum curators?
We have a museum and institutions preview, which is well-attended by curators from institutions across New York, and other states such as Boston, Washington, Texas and Illinois among others. We are dedicated to working with different publics, audiences and communities – a practice at the heart of museum activity. We also feature contributions from curators from museums and institutions in FORUM, our conversations programme curated by Koyo Kouoh (RAW Material Company, Dakar). Previous participants have included Franklin Sirmans (now Director of Pérez Art Museum Miami), Naima J. Keith (Studio Museum in Harlem) and Rujeko Hockley (Brooklyn Museum), in addition to Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi (Hood Museum) and Adrienne Edwards (Performa, New York and Walker Art Center), who join us again this year. This year’s FORUM includes a panel discussion titled ‘Museums and Contemporary African Art’ and explores practices in collecting, curating and display of contemporary art by African artists in American museums. Joining the panel are Karen Milbourne (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art), Kevin Dumouchelle (Brooklyn Museum), Yesomi Umolu (Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts) and Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi.
Now can we talk about the artists? How many artists are there and which African regions are represented in this edition of the fair?
The second edition in New York will highlight works by over 60 contemporary artists from Africa and the diaspora. Artists hail from a wide range of geographies including Angola, Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Ghana, Italy, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, United Kingdom, USA and Zimbabwe.
1.54 is a young art fair, but I noted that especially in the London edition, quite a few galleries, especially African galleries, have been attending the fairs since the first edition and that’s interesting….
We welcome new applications every year and invite galleries to apply. Our London edition has evolved with each edition, from 17 exhibitors to 37 in October 2015. This signals the increasing demand for the market and the proliferation of dedicated galleries in the field. We are interested in highlighting new perspectives and every edition is different as a result. The field is both gaining recognition and evolving from what some may have considered its infant stage and that is incredible exciting for us.
In a previous conversation with Ben Genocchio, the Armory Show’s new director, I asked him about his idea of the art fair of the future. He said to me: ‘A transformative cultural experience, in a good way’. What direction does 1:54 have to take to be more successful and to make African Art more competitive on the international art market?
We are interested in complexity and multiplicity, as well as highlighting voices that aren’t necessarily provided a platform. We’re keen to retain the intimacy of 1:54 and that is why we are presenting 17 carefully-selected exhibitors for this edition. As a fair it has always been about the experience, taking your time to enjoy the works and having conversations with the artists and gallerists. In this respect, collaboration is key and we are invested in working with institutions, art spaces and media platforms to reflect the heterogeneity of artistic and cultural production from the continent and the diaspora.
The highlights of this edition of 1:54?
Highlights for me include the Special Projects section, our series of curated events and project collaborations. It’s exciting as we can be really expansive with this section. Projects and events include book signings and presentation with artists Mickalene Thomas and Sue Williamson, ‘Transmissions’ in partnership with Dak’Art, and the 1:54 Lounge, which this year is being designed by Stephen Burks Man Made in partnership with DEDON. For the Lounge, Stephen Burks will bring together several of his Material Compositions designs with his Ahnda lounge seating collection for DEDON – many of these designs will be presented for the first time in a functional, yet playful installation.
In terms of artists, I couldn’t possibly choose! This edition will bring together incredible emerging talent with established names in a beautiful setting and all the artists’ works deserve engaging with on their own level.