African Art and its Representation in the Western World | An interview with 1:54 Founder Touria El Glaoui
As contemporary African art slowly but surely makes itself more visible across the world, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, initiated in 2013 by Moroccan founder Touria El Glaoui, continues to distinguish itself as a leader in this endeavor, returning to New York for its third consecutive edition on May 5.
The fair, coordinated this year with 19 galleries from Angola, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, will exhibit the carefully selected work of 60 impressive artists, with the art of prominent figures like Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi and legendary late Malian photographer Malick Sidibé exhibited alongside that of talented young artists like American multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams and South African photographer Lebohang Kganye.
Although 1:54’s third New York iteration maintains many structural and thematic similarities to its preceding editions, it does bring with it several new and exciting elements. “This year, in many ways, we were able to explore new projects,” says founder Touria El Glaoui. “We’re doing a huge collaboration with [photography art gallery] Aperture and are, for the first time, bringing a non-selling exhibition to Red Hook Labs — a Malick Sidibé exhibition. It’s going to be cool to be able to introduce him to an American audience that doesn’t quite know him.” In addition, the NY fair’s 2017 edition also promises a slew of special projects, the largest roster of non-profit programming since its 2015 inauguration.
Derrick Adams Floater No. 34 (2017) — Vigo gallery
But with this new edition and its promising selections, important questions surrounding the representation of African art abroad, especially in the West, are resurfacing. In fact, El Glaoui says she and her team have spent a lot of time thinking about just that.
“When people think about Africa,” says El Glaoui, “they usually think it’s a big country. But we wanted to show diversity and how multiplicity is playing as a factor for this fair. So 54 is the number of countries, obviously, that constitute the continent, and we thought that, through the title, we’re already explaining that that’s what we’re trying to show at 1:54. We want to show a whole Africa, but we also want to show the best artists that we can for every fair.”
The fair’s commitment to showing the best art from the continent rather than focusing on extensive representation from every part of Africa is apparent in this year’s talented roster of artists, but also in the fact that only a number of African countries are represented. 1:54, Touria says, doesn’t purport to “have the knowledge or experience of the culture of each country," nor does it want to put them all together in one box. She hopes, rather, that “everybody feels that they can celebrate their diversity.”
Touria El Glaoui — Credits: Image courtesy of 1:54 © Benjamin Hoffman
The fair continuously and extensively reviews these sensitivities and issues within FORUM, a 1:54 talks and events program curated by Koyo Kouoh, artistic director of Dakar’s RAW Material Company.
Asked if the idea of making African art accessible to an American audience plays into the fair’s curation, El Glaoui explains that they “are trying to cater for a New York audience, so we think about it, but at the same time, we are not trying to pick and choose what will please an American.”
But what does it mean to cater to a New York audience? “We’ve been exploring things here that we may not have explored in London,” Touria explains, “because we are dealing with a different audience. For example, we are very appealing to the African American community. We didn’t come here with that in mind, but because this is something that speaks to their heritage, we started to explore the possibility of showing an African American artist here. Derrick Adams, for example, has been with us for the past two years.”
Until now, 1:54 has focused on London and New York as a way to grow the international visibility of the artists it exhibits. Back in 2013 El Glaoui boldly scheduled 1:54’s first fair to be held in London’s prestigious Somerset House during the same week as the Frieze art fair.
“You have 60,000 visitors coming for Frieze, so I thought I would probably leverage on all those people coming,” Touria says. “It was about finding that grand venue where I could host artists that never had museum shows,” she says. “And, for a lot of them, it was their first time in such an environment, so I wanted something grand. I thought it was important.”
After several successful London and New York editions, many had asked about the installment of an African-based 1:54. In the process of making such a decision,Touria says she “had to think about a large group of collectors that I was bringing into the country and Marrakech seems, to me, like a platform that could work as a point of departure for Africa. 1:54’s inaugural Marrakech edition is set to take place from February 24-25, 2018 at La Mamounia, a renowned and historic Moroccan hotel.
Looking ahead, Touria says the next ideal scenario would be for the many contemporary African artists out there to be standing by all the Western artists in group shows, for the narrative to change. “So that it’s not about if an artist is African or not African,” she says, “but just about excellent work.”
Abdo Shanan, Untitled (Oran), from the series Diary: Exile (2014–16), Courtesy the artist and Collective 220
The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair will open its doors to New York audiences at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn from May 5-7.