Nushin Elahi Reports on 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London
Starting out as a small, offshoot African art fair to coincide with the Frieze, 1:54 has quietly grown and placed a very big African footprint on the London show. From a few rooms on one side of Somerset House four years ago, this year’s 1:54 filled almost the entire building. What was most encouraging though, was the clearly affluent, African audience who thronged the place.
1:54 is so-called because there are 54 countries on the African continent. Over the past four years it has become a hugely significant platform for all contemporary African art, with gallerists from Africa, America and Europe taking part.
For a continent known for famine, violence and corruption, the themes that emerged from this huge show were surprisingly light and cheerful. There was a sense of humour, a quirkiness and delight in colour, texture and pattern that I have not previously seen in Western art on the same scale. Of course there were comments on war, on issues like the rights of women, but there was also a lot of sheer beauty and wit.
It was difficult to keep track of the artists’ origins, with so many galleries from around the world. French-speaking Africa was best-represented, but there were some strong contenders from South Africa. Of course, many of the artists who started life elsewhere, ended up migrating to South Africa.
Among those who caught my eye were Michele Mathison, a South African born Zimbabwean whose burnt wood and metal sculptures were strong symbols of Zimbabwe, and exhibited as they were against a terracotta background, formed a striking image. His interlinking circle of wooden guns was repeated elsewhere in works by Gonçalo Mabunda, who built thrones out of real, decommissioned weapons.
Ghanaian, Maurice Mbikayi took over the mantle from El Anatsui’s shimmering bottle cap drapery by creating cloaks from technology junk, such as keyboards and handsets. The results were visually appealing, especially in juxtaposition to a cabaret-style line-up of top hats and canes. And he was not the only artist to use technology cast-offs. Zimbabwean, Moffat Takadiwa’s graduation gowns had a similar appeal. Two more Ghanaians, Serge Attukwei Clottey created stunning patterns in his wall-hangings constructed from landfill plastic, and Ibrahim Mahama appropriated huge coal sacks.
The Nando’s African Collection, rotated between the different UK outlets of the restaurant, featured four artists’ work in different media: Maurice Mbikayi’s photographs, Kagiso Patrick Mautloa’s found objects turned into masks, and Regi Bardavid’s large abstract canvasses with their blocks of saturated colour. The fourth artist, Lizette Chirrime, made use of traditional beadwork to create swirls of decorative designs, bringing a traditional craft right up to date with its story of transformation.
South African photographers Gideon Mendel, Jodi Bieber and Justin Dingwall also had work featured. Mendel first made a name for himself as a ‘struggle’ photographer. Now living in London, his images on show dealt with the ravages of water, salvaged objects and wonderfully fluid visual effects. Bieber’s work on this display dealt with women and how they are portrayed, drawing a neat comparison to Dingwall’s interrogation of the superstitions surrounding albinism.
A major solo exhibition of the late Malian photographer Malick Sidibé was included in the fair, and it continues until January 2017. His black and white images chronicled an upbeat nightlife in Bamako from the Sixties, complete with outsize sunglasses, fashionable flares and swirling dancing.
The forecourt of Somerset House was invaded by a stark Nubian army of masked men by Caribbean artist Zak Ové, who interestingly, also works in fabric to create multi-coloured, kitsch crochet swirls that couldn’t be more different from his resin sculptures.
The first African artist to be given a retrospective by the Tate Modern (in 2013), Ibrahim El Salahi presented his The Arab Spring Notebook at 1:54, a series of small images in his signature style that reflect the turmoil of that period. There were also larger pieces of his on show in various galleries.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the existence of so much non-representational art at this iteration of 1:54 can be attributed to the Islamic influence on African art and its historical use of decorative patterning. The use of recycled objects was also a prominent theme, commenting in part on consumerism in modern Africa and the disappearance of tribal traditions.
Nushin Elahi is a freelance arts journalist living in London. Her monthly London Letter appeared in the print version of the Art Times until recently. These articles are now included in the magazine’s daily news update, but can also be read on the London Letter website: http://london-letter.com
Image: Creating young audiences. Photo: Nushin Elahi