The 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair has returned to New York for its 2023 edition, which runs until Sunday at 439 West 127th Street in Harlem (the space formerly occupied by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise).
Bringing together 26 exhibitors, this tightly curated fair has a lot of gems and exceptional art on view across four floors, showing the diversity of art from Africa and its diaspora, which this fair has been instrumental in showcasing for a decade now.
Below, a look at the best booths at the 1-54 New York fair.
Ronald Hall at Duane Thomas Gallery
There’s something oddly alluring in the surrealist-inflected paintings by Brooklyn-based artist Ronald Hall. Having worked for years as a video game developer, including for Nintendo, Hall concerns himself with world-building, which is evident in these layered scenes that hint at influences ranging from René Magritte to Hughie Lee-Smith. But Hall’s worlds collapse time in an entirely fresh way. In New World Order (2023), Hall presents a Kenyan king administering a ceremony above a chess board, with a slave shack to the right and an alien-like spaceship rising from the hills in the background. In another painting, a larger-than-life Black woman puts her hand over a seated Black man, as three green circles radiate from her palms.
Roméo Mivekannin at Galerie Cécile Fakhoury
Leading dealer Cecile Fakhoury has given over its booth to a solo presentation by Roméo Mivekannin, who was born in Côte d’Ivoire and is now based between France and Benin. In these works, Mivekannin looks to classical painting, revisiting several masterpieces from European art history. He reproduces them somewhat faithfully, with a few key edits. The most notable of these is that he replaces each of the figure’s face with his own self-portrait, which stares out at you from the canvas, almost returning your gaze. He also erases out background details and paints the works on found materials—tablecloths, bedspreads—that hint to traces of the past and the physicality of their histories. An exceptional one comes from reimagining Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (ca. 1612–13).
In selecting the source material, Mivekannin often looks to scenes that feature women and enslaved people, who historically are treated as secondary objects within these European masterpieces. He wants to subvert that, while also providing disturbing images that seem to ponder what exactly it means to insert a Black body into a work from art history. To what end does that solve anything?
Kenseth Armstead at Pioneer Works
With a career spanning more than three decades, Kenseth Armstead is presenting a new work as part of a special project on the fair’s third floor, courtesy of Pioneer Works, where the artist will soon be in residence.
For True North: Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, Armstead has affixed to the booth walls 34 sculptures of varying sizes and shades of blue. Each sculpture here represents the number of states that were part of the Union at the start of the Civil War. This powerful piece is an homage to all those whose lives were forever changed by slavery: the 100 million Africans who were abducted, the over 70 million who did not survive the journey, the nearly 30 million who did, and the 100,000 who liberated themselves via the Underground Railroad. Armstead used a hot comb to puncture the 34 sculptures 100,000 times for each of those people. It’s both a celebration of their journey and a remembrance of the precarity involved in doing so.
Ousmane Bâ at Galerie Atiss Dakar
Japan-based, French-born artist Ousmane Bâ is interested in exploring movement in his monumental painting Le Ballet Aérien (2022). In it, several figures are shown mid-dance against an off-white background. There’s a certain tension to their bodies as they contract their muscles and contort in ways that don’t feel entirely natural.
The wonderment on this three-panel canvas is enhanced by the Bâ’s attention to stark negative space and the fact that the figures are composed of collaged cut-outs of abstract Japanese paper (washi) meticulously dyed using the Katazone technique. Bâ, who was on hand during the VIP preview Thursday, said he was interested in looking at movement because “the beginning of everything is movement—life, the Big Bang is a movement.”
Mar + Vin at Galerie Number 8
The photography duo Mar + Vin are well known in their native Brazil for their stunning fashion photography, with their images having graced the covers of Vogue Brasil, Elle Brasil, and other publications. But, at 1-54, the duo is having their first showing outside of Brazil. (They have previously exhibited at past editions of SP-Arte, São Paulo’s main art fair.)
Here, they have three striking photographs on view, from their series “A Língua dos Pássaros” (The Language of the Birds), which was originally commissioned by Vogue Brasil in 2022. In each of these images, Black women pose as birds, part of an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The photographers aim to show the beauty of Black women as an act of resistance.
Jamilla Okubo at Mehari Sequar Gallery
Washington, D.C.–based gallery Mehari Sequar has brought to the fair three alluring mixed-media paintings by Jamilla Okubo. Each of these scenes show a Black woman, whose clothing is made from collaged fabric, in a quiet moment of respite, often at home, surrounded by plants. The series is a meant as a response to the TikTok term “#softlife,” or “living a life of comfort and low stress” that allows Black women to “to imagine what life can feel like apart from the realities of Black women’s labor,” according to Andscape.