Currently filling nearly the entire back wall of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a familiar-looking flag. There are the stars and stripes, and even some red, but there is also black, green and yellow—colors representative of West Africa. Attached to each star is an assortment of amulets, from tiny medicine bottles, prayer beads, and shells to some curious-looking glass vials. The piece, one of the many articles on view at 1:54—the annual intercontinental fair dedicated to contemporary African art—is titled Disunited States of Africa (2010) and could very well stand as this event’s unofficial flag.
“This one appeals to Americans,” said Senghor Sitor, the eponymous gallery owner who represents Nú Barreto, the Paris– and Guinea-Bissau–based artist responsible for the flag. Sitor explained of the work, “The black is because we’re black, the red is for the bloodshed, the green for hope, and the yellow for anger and sorrow. It’s a history of Africa through art.”
Complex, grappling with history, and filled with bright, vivid color—that is 1:54.
“When we launched in London in 2013 it was a challenge, a risk, an adventure,” said Koyo Kouoh, the founding artistic director of RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal, and the curator of FORUM, 1:54’s educational platform. “It was a also a kind of a boldness to say, ‘We are good enough to launch our own fair.’ We have this amazing wealth of artistic practice and shouldn’t have to have galleries beg at Frieze, Armory, or Basel’s door and never be considered,” Kouoh added.
Now in its third New York edition, it seems to have been a risk that’s paid off. Later this year, the fair will launch its first iteration on the African continent, in Marrakesh, Morocco.
The key for Kouoh is quality over quantity, which means selecting smaller galleries who “invest in the artists” and are happy to choose “educational, artistic, and critical exposure over financial turnover.” This year there are just 19 exhibitors—including nine new galleries that have never come to New York for the fair—a welcome change of scale when compared with the more than 200 galleries that inhabit Frieze.
ROOM gallery from Johannesburg, South Africa, provides a nice introductory point for the work, and ideas, on offer at 1:54. A video projection screened within the booth shows a mysterious figure in a threadbare robe, its face shrouded by a metallic dome, wandering through an alien-looking concrete structure. The figure carries a censer for burning incense, used in this instance as part of a ritual cleansing of the building, which in reality is a cultural oddity: an abandoned monument located in a former segregated territory of South Africa known as a “homeland,” a leftover relic from Apartheid. The man under the mask, Sikhumbuzo Makandula, is the local artist responsible for the work, titled UBUZWE, an isiXhosa word linked to concepts of nationalism and nationhood.
“What I think is fundamental,” said Kouoh, expanding on these same ideas in relation to the fair, “is that even though we are geographic-specific, so to speak, we are really trying to go beyond that geography. The geographic specificity is really a political stand, it’s not really an artistic stand.”
For Touria El Glaoui, 1:54’s founder, that question of geographic identity extends to building a platform that connects artists from Africa to a global audience. “We always had in mind the desire to just catch up and that’s what we’ve been doing,” said El Glaoui, “catching up with this group of artists that has been completely invisible for a while.”
On the topic of visibility, bright yellow plastic squares cut from gallon containers and woven into chunky tapestries take pride of place over at the booth of another newcomer to New York, Gallery 1957, of Accra, Ghana. The work of Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, the works share a similar technique to that of fellow countryman El-Anatsui, who weaves together liquor bottle caps and other detritus, but are quite different in their material and narrative, according to the gallery curator El-Yesha Puplampu. “This work is about migration and trade,” said Puplampu. “He uses the gallons because they reference water in Ghana.”
“The fact that we’re able to now have our first fair in Africa is a big deal,” El Glaoui said. “To have a successful fair you need to have a few factors in place, one being a set of collectors ready to buy.”
“It’s been easier to have the fair in New York and London where there’s a strong collector base and institutions,” she added. “It’s another thing doing it in a country where until three years ago there were no museums of contemporary African art,” which is the case with Morocco. “But now those variables have changed.”