On the back of a successful New York satellite edition and in anticipation of the third edition in London, opening next week, ART AFRICA spoke with founder Touria El Glaoui about the challenges faced and how the fair in all its multiplicity intends to challenge and engage the concept of an ‘African’ aesthetic. This year’s fair seeks to address the “imagined division of Africa into two cartographies,” North and South; an interrogation supported by FORUM, the fair’s educational and artistic programme.
This interview appears in full in the inaugural issue of ART AFRICA, ‘Becoming African.’ You will also be able to read this exclusive content in the October Digital Issue (FREE app download here for Apple and here for Android).
ART AFRICA: There is definitely an accelerating interest in the market and demand for contemporary art from Africa, from within the continent and internationally. How does 1:54 harness and capitalise on this established interest, while remaining an accessible and nurturing environment for the emerging market?
Touria El Glaoui: The accelerating interest in and demand for contemporary African art has been reflected in attendance at 1:54. We experienced a 65% growth in visitors in 2014 (with ten thousand visitors) and a 60% increase in participating galleries in the second edition. As an art fair, I believe that 1:54 has an unmatchable opportunity to raise artists’ profiles, lend visibility to their career and initiate top public commissions.
With this comes an awareness of the necessity to nurture – we don’t want to encourage an unstable boom. I recently took part in a panel discussion regarding this (at The Arts Club chaired by Princess Alia Al-Senussi). Discussing contemporary African art within the parameters of the global market in order to consider its future status, Giles Peppiatt, the Director of Contemporary African Art at Bonhams; Elisabeth Lalouschek, Artistic Director of the October Gallery; prominent collector Alain Nkontchou, and I were able to draw upon our distinct experiences to best learn together.
1:54’s guided tours, lectures, film screenings, panel debates and catalogue combine to create a platform from which the creative careers of young artists, collectors, curators, gallerists and writers can be developed. Such interaction allows connections to be made between different generations of international creative professionals and the general public. This is best facilitated by FORUM, a critical conversation series curated by Koyo Kouoh, where expertise and innovation is shared with an engaged audience, who are also invited to contribute and participate.
What is the vision and aim of FORUM 2015? What are some of the main points you are hoping to address and what are your desired outcomes?
As always, FORUM will work to stimulate a wealth of discussion with leading professionals active in the field, while encouraging participation and contribution from its audience. Developing the upcoming programme is essential to maintaining the dialogue first established in 2012 between 1:54 and its wide-ranging audience.
This October, the FORUM conversations will pivot around artistic and intellectual relationships between the Maghreb and sub- Saharan Africa, or ‘Black Africa,’ as an interrogation of the Sahara as a conjectural boundary. The sessions will seek to address the imagined division of Africa into two cartographies, and explore how ideas circulate and proliferate across this critical and fertile landscape.
By continuing to contribute towards and inhabit the discourses of Africa and African diasporan identities, Black and Arab subjectivities and postcolonial relations, FORUM hopes to further consolidate its mission as a flexible, dynamic and accessible platform for the future of contemporary African art.
This year’s edition seems to have a more specific focus than before – North African contemporary art. Why did you decide on this focus and what is 1:54 doing to introduce new voices and avoid falling into the trap of always including the same familiar voices?
FORUM is yet to critically examine scholarship, curatorship, and artistic production dealing with the North Africa/ South Africa divide, and I know that such a focus has been incubating in Koyo Kouoh’s consciousness for a while now. I don’t consider there to be any danger of falling into habits of repetition. This year’s FORUM will host different voices and perspectives to the editions before simply by the nature of the contributions and material that will be covered.
You have said before that “belonging to a collection in Africa isn’t the same thing as belonging to a collection of an international art collector” – do you stand by this opinion? Also what are some of the primary factors that are growing the profile of collectors and collections in Africa as more millionaires and billionaires emerge on the continent?
I will stand by this for as long as collections in Africa do not enjoy the visibility of those owned by international art collectors. Until there is a range of museums in Africa to which works can be lent, collections in Africa will not be shown in the same way. This does not mean that one collection has any more value than another.
Collaboration and fluid models are characteristic of institutions in Africa. 1:54 too is an example of this; a multi- functional and multi-faceted platform for economic, cultural and intellectual exchange. Does 1:54 represent a new type of business model, and if so, how is it changing perceptions about contemporary art from Africa?
As a London-based art fair, 1:54 conforms to a tried and tested business model. It is unique in that it has a strong intellectual and discursive programme running concurrently, which is generative and productive. I think 1:54 works to present a multitude of voices and perspectives, and through this, derails often archaic, westernised attitudes towards ‘African’ art, and what that may be.
You have previously mentioned that you “envisage a permanent place for 1:54 on the annual art circuit.” There can be little doubt of this following the successful hosting of 1:54 New York. Now in its third year, what is your evaluation of the success of the fair to date and how do you envision growing it further?
I believe 1:54’s greatest success is in challenging archaic notions of what an African artist may produce or be influenced by. How could there be an ‘African aesthetic,’ when we are speaking about a continent, of multiple regions and art hubs – each with their own infrastructures, politics, socioeconomic conditions, legislation, dialects and languages.
I can only hope for the continued success of 1:54 as a critically engaged platform that meets a purpose in providing a sustainable platform for African artists, or those working or living across the continent. I am committed to encouraging involvement and engagement with our exhibitors and artists in 1:54, as I believe we are showcasing incredible talent, diligence and excellence.
The bottom line is that artists from Africa and the African diaspora continue to be omitted, or marginal, in major biennales, surveys and art fairs. As long as this persists as a reality, then 1:54 will continue providing an explorative platform.
Let’s discuss the recent expansion of 1:54, especially its move across the Atlantic. What feedback can you give us about the first satellite edition of 1:54 in New York (at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn), specifically referencing the challenges you faced and your take on the differences and similarities between the audience and market you talk to in London as opposed to New York?
For this first satellite edition, sixteen exhibitors were invited to present the work of over sixty emerging and established artists – eight of these exhibitors were from Africa.
Shifting our infrastructure across sea and land was no easy feat. As a process, it meant virtually unraveling our structures – interrogating what is necessary or vital – just to conceive an idea. It was almost like producing afresh! Fortunately, we received an encouraging response.
Pioneer Works is a striking former iron works factory founded by artist Dustin Yellin in 2012 as a center for the creation, synthesis and discussion of art, science and education. This space had an incredibly laid-back, welcoming atmosphere and the weekend particularly drew many more visitors than expected. In New York, 1:54 expanded its target audience and engaged with an unprecedented number of African- American and American visitors.
Notable press included artnet, The New York Times, hyperallergic, BLOUIN ARTINFO, The Financial Times, Christie’s and artslant. The exhibitors also encountered generous interest from new museums and institutions – from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.
For this New York edition, FORUM was condensed into a two-day symposium, which looked to reexamine current and speculative notions of 21st century African trajectories of dispersion, as produced by African and African descent subjects. FORUM drew together key professionals from US-based scholarship, art practices, and key institutions contributing toward and inhabiting the discourses of African and African diasporic identities, black subjectivities and postcolonial relations. Speakers included artists Julie Mehretu and Melvin Edwards; curators Adrienne Edwards of Performa, Franklin Sirmans of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Thomas J. Lax of MoMA. Leading scholars included Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University and Steven Nelson of the University of California, Los Angeles, among others.
With 1:54, which successes in particular are you most proud of?
We are expecting a predicted 20% increase in visitors, increasing to twelve thousand from 2014. Such figures are useful, but not necessarily conclusive to success.
For me, success is asking whether my exhibitors are happy; whether, at the end of an edition I feel gratified and honoured to have worked with such inspiring people. Success is seeing an artist who has exhibited with us, or participated in FORUM, working within and transgressing significant international artistic and cultural frameworks. Like when Otobong Nkanga was included in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s 2014 project ‘14 Rooms’ at Art Basel following their Artist Talk at 1:54’s FORUM in 2013.
So, success, or even the small triumphs, are marked by the conversations, both ongoing and freshly started, that work to metabolise action and change – to destabilise antiquated Western structures and resist the singularity of ‘Africanism.’
I am constantly working towards the near future, wherein global African identities are unhindered by cultural and political hegemonies, and flourish as important agents in contemporary arenas of knowledge sharing, art and cultural production, the marketplace and global industries.
We, and, not only those that are of African descent, but also those that are interested in, or have a relationship to the African continent, share a key role in leading change, and in contributing toward alternative platforms and debates that proliferate and disseminate wider voices and perspectives from the continent.
So what is the success that I seek? Collaboration and exchange. Both are fundamental to 1:54, and I believe, vital to information sharing, knowledge production and creating spaces of cultural and artistic production, exhibition, and celebration.
This year, 1:54 has an additional wing at Somerset House – congratulations on this expansion! What additional galleries, artists and special projects has this made space for and what can the public expect that is new and different from the previous events?
Award-winning architectural and design studio RA Projects, established in 2009 by architect Rashid Ali, will design the third London edition. In celebration of 1:54’s expansion, RA Projects will insert a series of richly coloured sculptural interventions across the East, South, and West Wings.
In 2013, seventeen exhibitors were selected to present across the West Wing. In 2014, having undergone major development, 1:54 expanded to include twenty-seven exhibitors. For the upcoming edition, 1:54 now has thirty-seven exhibitors, with new additions from Spain, Sweden, Benin, and Angola, to showcase the most exciting and rigorous works of over one hundred and fifty contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora. To continue supporting emergent organisations, initiatives, and non- profit art spaces, 1:54 will recommence ‘Special Projects’ and showcase Qubeka Bead Studio, CapeTown; Fondation Zinsou, Cotonou; and BASMOCA, Jeddah.
Additionally, we will feature two solo shows. Artist Hassan Hajjaj (Larache Studio, London) will entirely transform the 1:54 Lounge into a vibrant and immersive salon as tribute to Moroccan interiors, fashion, and culture, edged with motifs of global commerce. Kapwani Kiwanga will present ‘Flowers for Africa,’ an exhibition celebrating the independence of the fifty-four African countries through the reproduction of flower arrangements. Galleri Flach will also present an exhibition of street-life photography from Kinshasa by the late Kiripi Katembo (Congo).
In an article on 1:54 New York, Ben Davis said, “The fair’s title translates to mean ‘One continent: 54 countries.’ On one level, however – the level where you ask which Africa is being represented – it is more like 1:4. That is, in terms of economic clout, just four African countries send galleries; a full five of these hail from a single country; South Africa and Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Morocco account for one each. The remainder consists of European or US galleries with interests in different types of contemporary art related to Africa or the African diaspora.
From our experience of the same challenges with regards to ART AFRICA’s content focus (for numerous reasons), we know that this allegation rings true. Please give us some of your thoughts on the reasons for this and the challenges that 1:54 faces in this regard.
Yes, the title ‘1:54’ draws reference to the fifty-four countries that constitute the African continent. The initiative has a specific agency, which is to institute a platform that strives to demonstrate the multiplicity of contemporary African and African Diasporan art on an international stage. As I said earlier, sixteen exhibitors were invited to present the work of over sixty emerging and established artists – and eight of these exhibitors were from Africa. As Ben David rightly identified they hailed from just four countries.
1:54 is in no way a survey representation of what contemporary African art may be. We cannot facilitate that, but we can do all that is in our power to highlight its multiplicity; that’s why we showcase exhibitors from territories such as Kenya, Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Tunisia, Benin, Nigeria, Mali, South Africa, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, amongst others, and continue to broaden our horizons.
1:54 is a showcase of the most engaging, rigorous and exciting artists at this time, represented by dedicated and pioneering exhibitors. With each edition, we welcome proposals from exhibitors and galleries dedicated to promoting and supporting African and African Diasporan artists, as well as artists living and working in Africa, or that have a relationship to the continent.
There aren’t any no-go areas for us, we recognise that our exhibitors make informed and sensitive decisions regarding their practices. In turn, 1:54 selects the exhibitors based on the proposals they put forth, along with the reputation of the gallery, or by an understanding of what they would like to achieve.
We continue to welcome exhibitors based on the continent, as well as those based in Europe and the United States, and hope to feature further perspectives. Drawing from all corners of the globe, 1:54 aims at showcasing the most exciting and high-quality contemporary art in a unique setting, that is just as much an experience as it is an art fair.
In response, you said, “Obviously, we are just touching the tip of the iceberg with what we are representing. It is going to be evolving in terms of what you see at 1:54. All of these art scenes are developing right now.” How does 1:54 approach the curatorial aspects of the fair to make it more accessible for emerging artists and galleries from Africa?
Each edition, various exhibitors have been invited to participate free of charge. Through this ‘Special Projects’ section 1:54 is able to support emergent organisations, initiatives, and non-profit art spaces.