The pink-hued ancient city of Marrakech has long dazzled the popular imagination from its position on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The bustling Maghreb locale is known for its majestic palaces and hustling vendors in the old medina, as well as belly dancers, tagine, and restorative hammams. It’s now also becoming a center for a new phenomenon: contemporary African art.
When the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair returned last week for its third edition in Marrakech, the enterprise—founded in London in 2013 and also expanded to New York—took to the lavish environs of La Mamounia hotel and featured artwork from 20 galleries (up two from last year) on offer to some 6,000 visitors (the fair’s highest attendance so far). For such a boutique fair, it also brought in a surprising contingent of VIPs from international institutions, with attendees from the Brooklyn Museum, Centre Pompidou, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Christie’s, Fondazione Berengo, Gulbenkian Foundation, Middle East Institute, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, New Museum, Royal Academy of Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Sotheby’s, and Tate Modern.
There were 10 new participants, among them Nil Gallery (France), So Art (Morocco), Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art (Egypt), Whatiftheworld (South Africa), and Afikaris (France). And of the 20 exhibitors, 14 were from Africa—the highest number from the continent to date and an indication of the organizers’ push to diversify the event’s image as a largely francophone fair for galleries from Europe and North Africa.
“In Marrakech we have generated and cultivated a renewed interest in the art scene in the city and its many cultural platforms—a role we don’t have in London or New York,” Touria El Glaoui, the Moroccan-born founder of 1-54, told ARTnews. “We have an eclectic group of collectors. There aren’t more French collectors than there are Africans. We are getting the best of each side of the world coming to Marrakech. This year, collectors that regularly come to London and New York have come to Marrakech for the first time.”
“And we have more traction from Africa this year,” El Glaoui added. “We had an entire delegation from Senegal as well as several collectors from the continent.”
Amadou Diaw, an African collector who founded the Musée de la Photographie de Saint-Louis Senegal, called 1-54 “a magical meeting place for giving and receiving.” And gallerist Cécile Fakhoury (with locations in Ivory Coast, Dakar, and Paris) said, “Marrakech is a meeting point between Europe, the U.S., and Africa,” adding, “we have noticed more collectors this year from Morocco—coming from Casablanca and Rabat—and they are more open to buying artists from West Africa.”
Since its inception, 1-54 has developed a reputation among some as a francophone fair with a predominance of European collectors. Dealers were divided as to whether that was still the case in Marrakech.
“I think the fair is still quite francophone,” Anthony Dawson of Goodman Gallery—one of four participants from South Africa—told ARTnews. “Marrakech is still close to many European collectors in the North African region. This year two of our works will be going to Moroccan collectors living outside of Morocco. We also noticed a great presence of collectors from the U.S. and Great Britain.”
But the boundaries are expanding, in different ways. “We choose to do Marrakech because not only does it broaden our audience within African, particularly within North Africa, but it also gives us the opportunity to participate in a more intimate fair and be more experimental with our booth and our programming,” said Dawson, who noted sales during the fair of work by Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi in the range of €30,000 to €110,000 (around $32,600 to $119,400) as well as Yinka Shonibare and Kudzanai Chiurai for €25,000 to €110,000 ($27,100 to $119,400).
Other dealers noted good activity with collectors but also what they perceived to be uneven quality among the works exhibited and a smaller number of visitors than they had hoped for. “It’s very small, very boutique, but the collectors are engaged,” said Justin Rhodes, director of the Cape Town–based gallery Whatiftheworld, participating for the first time. “There seems to be a discrepancy in terms of quality, but overall the fair is a great way for us to explore a new African city.” The gallery sold works by Nigerian photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo priced between €2,500 and €4,000 ($2,700 to $4,300). It also showed several vibrantly colored prayer mats by Muslim South African artist Thania Petersen—from a series reminding viewers of the talismanic power of religious ritual and daily prayer—with prices ranging from €8,000 to €14,000. “We are cognizant of the fact that Petersen’s work is challenging,” said Rhodes, “but we thought it would fit well within the context of Morocco, given that it is a predominantly Muslim country.”
“We have never been a fair with rules,” said El Glaoui, the director. “Here, you can find the most affordable to the most established artists. When we started, there were many galleries with no [physical] space representing artists from Africa, because they had neither the means nor the business model to open a gallery. It was important for us not to adhere to the same rules that Art Basel or Frieze has—to only include galleries that had actual walls.”
Johannesburg-based Afronova, one such participant that represents artists without a brick-and-mortar home, was in Morocco for the first time after participating in 1-54 in London and New York. “After hearing good feedback from other galleries, we decided to give Marrakech a try,” said Emilie Démon, cofounder of the entity, known particularly for its promotion of female photographers. On view were works by Alice Mann, Elsa Bleda, Lebohang Kganye, and Phumzile Khanyile. Démon said they sold works by each, for prices ranging from €1,800 to €4,000 ($2,000 to $4,400).
While serving as a gateway to the rest of the continent, 1-54 also served a place to foster cultural and economic ties among other North African nations. “We have shifted the gallery’s focus over the last few years to participate in more fairs due to the amount of control and censorship in the Egyptian art market,” said Yara El Siwi of the Cairo-based Mashrabia Gallery, a first-time participant at the fair. “Many people consider Egypt a Middle Eastern country, but Egypt is very much an African country. There’s a very limited exchange between Egypt and Morocco within the art scene, and we wanted to explore a new market.”
Six galleries in the fair were from Morocco, but dealers based in the country said that more collectors came to buy from outside. “The art scene is changing in Marrakech—but still slowly,” said Rocco Orlacchio, who opened the local Voice Gallery in 2011 and participated in the first 1-54 Marrakech in 2018. “We still do not yet have enough Moroccan buyers. Here in Morocco everything is called a ‘gallery.’ The majority of people still do not understand what an art gallery is. You cannot build these collectors overnight. It’s a long-term project to foster a thriving art scene.”