It may well be that settings for people-watching can get no better than an art fair in a grand Moroccan hotel. The milling in and out of La Mamounia Palace in Marrakech was a sight to see last weekend in the midst of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair: locals and travelers alike taking up their stations amid bountiful orange trees and swaying palms, with a lot of dashing fashion on display. Sounds and scents stirred the senses more, from clacking traffic noise drifting over top the hotel’s gated walls to a dizzying mix of floral aromas whirled together with notes of citrus and gasoline.
Inside, art from 17 galleries filled booths at the first edition of 1-54 in Africa, after previous incarnations of the fair dating back to 2013 in London and New York. “We wanted to do 1-54 since the beginning on the African continent—that was always our plan and ambition,” said Touria El Glaoui, the fair’s founding director. “I had the chance in the past five years to go all over Africa for art events—different biennials and photo festivals—and as an observer of where we could get a large pool of collectors to travel. Marrakech is historically a center in Morocco of religion, culture, and economy, so I felt like it would be a good home.”
The location she settled on in Marrakech is a lush hotel that opened in 1923 and boasts a lineage back to the 12th century, with a list of storied guests including Winston Churchill (he was known to brood there) and starry-eyed endorsements from all over. In their booths, dealers seemed pleased.
“We wanted to start with 1-54 and thought Morocco was a good idea,” said Nicole Louis-Sidney of LouiSimone Guirandou Gallery, of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which was participating in a 1-54 fair for the first time. “It’s in Africa, it’s easy, it’s practical. We didn’t know exactly who we were going to meet—because it’s not London or New York, we didn’t know if people from museums and institutions would come. But it’s been tremendous. We’ve met collectors from America and China—a lot of people maybe we would have never met if we hadn’t come here.”
In her booth were works on paper by Nù Barreto (for €6,000–€12,000, or about $7,300–$14,700) and a large installation by Ana Zulma (for €30,000, or $36,600) that comprised 22 painted-over photographic portraits encased in round frames made with coconut wood—“like little nests to protects all these lives,” Louis-Sidney said.
In the booth for Loft Art Gallery, a Marrakech enterprise, a series of enigmatic photo works by Hicham Benohoud showed Minimalist sculptures and installations in the middle of wide-open desert vistas. One of the subjects was an illustration, evoking a form that wasn’t there, but the rest were real objects that the artist “built and destroyed after each shot,” according to Mohamed Berrada, a partner in the gallery.
Nearby in the same booth, works by Joana Choumali featured embroidery on photographs printed on canvas of the Ivory Coast town of Grand-Bassam, the site of a beachside terrorist attack in 2016. The project, titled “Ça Va Aller,” was an attempt to address repressed memories, the artist said: “It is so difficult in my society to talk about psychological trauma or mental illness. Always when you start to talk about things that are difficult to cope with, people end the conversation by saying ‘ça va aller‘—it will be fine.”
She continued, “Why don’t we talk about these things? What does it say about African culture?” Then, with a bit of a bewildered laugh, she raised a question that came up more than a few times at the fair. “And what is African culture, actually?”
Berrada, the Loft Gallery partner, said 1-54 had been a boon for the local art community. “It’s great visibility for Morocco and great for the Moroccan art scene,” he said, while in the midst of selling works to locals and out-of-towners alike. (The Benohoud works were going for €3,200, or $3,900, while the Choumali works sold for €1,800, or $2,200.)
The booth for Tiwani Contemporary, a London-based gallery that has participated in 1-54 in England, featured a pair of striking photographs by Walid Layadi-Marfouk, an artist whose family maintains ties to a grand housing complex in Marrakech that was built beginning in the 19th century. Assembled in a series titled “Riad,” the images show the artist’s family members in the present communing with remnants of their collective past within a decorous setting that spans generations. In a text describing the series, Layadi-Marfouk writes, in reference to the works’ swellingly colorful look and intimations of drama, “The depiction of a bygone era is sometimes absurd, surreal in the way that childhood reminiscences are often cinematic.” Also, in mind of his own experience of the Marrakech milieu as someone who has spent more time in Paris and the United States: “There is no single Muslim reality.”
Works from “Riad” were also on view elsewhere in town, at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), which had opened months earlier but celebrated its international opening during 1-54 to make for a sort of unofficial Marrakech Art Week. Throughout a series of intimate and interconnecting spaces distributed over two floors that proved deceptively spacious, MACAAL presented a contemporary photography show, “Africa Is No Island,” and “Second Life,” a selection of work dealing with recycled or reconstituted materials from the collection of the local Lazraq family, who opened the museum, which is first of its kind in Africa.
“We want to give the public the opportunity to visit a museum,” Othman Lazraq, the 29-year-old president of MACAAL, said at a grand opening party for the museum, in the midst of live music in a giant tent and attendees dreamily eating escargots under the stars. “We don’t have this culture here. What we want to try to do is educate people.”
He continued, “The fact that a private collection opened to the public is very new in Morocco, and you can see the mentality is changing. Five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to open a museum like this.” He recalled a line that lingered from a conversation with someone who encouraged him to put his family’s collection of some 2,000 contemporary African artworks to use: “You have a voice—use it.”
In an attempt to bring people to the museum, MACAAL is running free shuttles to its location outside the center of the city, and on some Fridays will offer collective couscous meals in line with old-world Moroccan tradition.
Meanwhile, back at 1-54, an audience of curiosity-seekers was joined by a wealth of collectors too. “We’ve met an amazing amount of people who are serious collectors,” said Maria Varnava, the founding director of Tiwani Contemporary. “There’s a lot of possibility here. The conversations I’ve had here have been really substantial and I’m encouraged.” She said she met collectors from France, Italy, and Spain—and sales included work by Layadi-Markfouk (for $5,000), Dawit L. Petros (for £3,500, or $4,820), Thierry Oussou (£8,500, or $11,700), and Virginia Chihota (for £8,000–£14,000, or $11,000–$19,300).
In “Decolonising Knowledge,” one of seven talks in a Forum program that the curator Omar Berrada organized, Ahmed Skounti, an anthropologist, talked about the designation of Marrakech’s medina—an ages-old walled section of the city—as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “intangible culture” in the form of storytelling and oral history going back many centuries. On the same panel, Donna Kukama, an artist from Johannesburg, spoke of her Free School for Art and Other Necessary ‘Fings as an institution that “refuses to have a building” and, instead, privileges itinerant agility over monumental status. In mind of art history and attention only really recently paid to Africa in such terms, the panel reached a general consensus around a central question: “Who determines value?”
Berrada, the curator, said, “There’s been a lot of talk about Africa in Morocco in recent years, for many reasons. The country has been establishing a stronger presence economically throughout the continent, and after rejoining the African Union [in 2017, after a 33-year absence], there’s a serious interest in reclaiming a sense of belonging on the continent, which wasn’t the case five or ten years ago.
“But if it is to be meaningful,” he continued, “it cannot only be based on economic investment—there needs to be cultural substance in terms of research, knowledge, and art production. For that to happen, there needs to be more presence, more exchange, more crossing of borders, until artists from all over Africa are more present here and vice-versa.”
As for the few-day residency of 1-54, El Glaoui, the fair’s director, said, “I’m very enthusiastic about what happened these past three days. It is always a bet when you start a new fair in a new destination, and the challenge here was even bigger because, in London and New York, we’re a bit of a satellite art fair leveraging collectors in town for other fairs.”
The MACAAL opening and other related events—including shows at Comptoir des Mines Galerie, an exhibition space reminiscent of New York’s MoMA PS1; the Montresso Art Foundation, a large outdoor artist-residency project; and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech—helped with the swell around 1-54. But an established local culture figured in, too. “There is a crowd that is really interested and curious about art,” said Christian Sulger-Buel of Sulger-Buel Lovell, a gallery with locations in London and Cape Town that had a booth at the fair.
Sulger-Buel had been a collector of classical African art for 40 years before his interests turned toward the contemporary around the same time that 1-54 got its start in England. “The artists are younger, and there is drive,” the dealer said of what intrigued him most. “It’s exciting: new business and new groups of artists.” Sulger-Buel sold paintings by all three artists in his booth: the Moroccan Mahi Binebine, the Tunisian Slimen El Kamel, and the Senegalese Soly Cisse, for prices ranging from €4,000 to €35,000 (or $4,900 to $43,100).
El Glaoui estimated that there were some 1,500 foreign collectors in Marrakech for the fair, on top of a local collector base already present. As for the prospect of editions of 1-54 elsewhere on the continent, she said it will take some time. “It’s very easy to get to Casablanca or to Marrakech, and I believe you need to create a home base that is solid before going somewhere else,” she said. “Maybe in two or three years’ time, when this one is rolling, we could do a pop-up somewhere else—I’ll consider it.”
Meanwhile, with the shine of a successful 1-54 inaugural and the presence of MACAAL established, Marrakech seems primed for the prospect of more such activity in the future. As an artist with work on view at MACAAL related, “In North Africa, we have a tendency to think we’re not the same, but this museum makes people realize that Morocco is part of Africa.”
Those were parting words from Othman Zine, a member of the Marrakech-based Zbel Manifesto collective whose work in the museum comprised a large room filled with reconstituted trash assembled in a sort of disquieting fantasia. “People talk about Africa as if it was one country, but there are a lot of countries with a diversity of culture, and it’s interesting to have a place where you can see that diversity.”
Ghizlane Sahli, a partner of Zine’s in the collective and, like him, also an artist working on her own, said, “We used to be much more connected to Europe. When we talked about Africa, it always seemed like it was somewhere else. Now I’m feeling proud be a part of a big continent that is so mysterious.”