After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair’s Moroccan edition is back at the newly refurbished Mamounia hotel, which is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary. This edition, the fair’s fourth in Marrakech, opened yesterday to the press and will run through February 12.
Some 60 artists and 20 exhibitors are participating. Eight galleries are from the African continent, four of them are based in Morocco. And there are 12 newcomers to the fair, including Foreign Agent (Lausanne, Switzerland), HOA Galeria (São Paulo), Superposition Gallery (Miami Beach), and Templon (Paris).
The event may look intimate, but it has a lot to offer, from figurative paintings to textile-based works and mutlimedia installations. “Marrakech is the highest point in the country and the meeting point of three cultures: African, Arabic and French. There is a lot happening during the fair, which makes it the perfect time to discover the city,” said founding director Touria El Glaoui, who started her career in the banking industry before launching 1-54 in 2013 in London. The Moroccan iteration was born five years later.
In front of La Mamounia, which means “safe haven” in Arabic, two special projects lead to the fair. One is Still Free, a performance by Portuguese painter Francisco Vidal, who asks visitors to sit before him. (This Is Not a White Cube gallery, from Lisbon and Luanda, brought the work to the fair.) It’s Vidal’s way of attempting to turn a social interaction into a form of art. Closer to the 1-54 entrance, there’s a motorcycle designed by Belgian artist Eric Van Hove, who reinterprets the industrial icons of the 21st century using a wide variety of craft materials and techniques drawn from the Maghreb.
Below, a look at six of the best offerings at 1-54.
Abdulrazaq Awofeso at Ed Cross
For 1-54, Ed Cross put together “Broad Streets,” a presentation meant as a prelude to the first show he’s doing with Abdulrazaq Awofeso at his namesake London gallery space in the spring. The display consists of new sculptural portraits collaged from discarded wooden pallets usually employed for the transportation of good around the world. They feature people the artist has encountered on two roads sharing the same name, one in Birmingham, England, and the other at a commercial centre in Lagos, Nigeria.
These hand-painted characters escape categorization, reinforcing the parallel between both locations. Awofeso, who recently moved from Lagos to Birmingham, has always been on the move—“in transit,” in his words. His work offers a powerful reflection on human migration and the corruption that sometimes goes along with it. It’s also a commentary on how we are all on our personal journey. To Ed Cross, he is “Africa’s brightest young art star.”
Thandiwe Muriu at 193 Gallery
Paris-based 193 Gallery’s is among the spaces participating in 1-54 for the first time. “As 50 percent of our artists come from African communities, it was all the more important for us to represent them in Africa,” Mary-Lou Ngwe-Secke, a gallery representative, said. “We have been following the Moroccan scene closely. The fair therefore gives us an opportunity to show the variety of our curation and to quench our thirst for new artistic discoveries.”
In the middle of the booth stands an imposing textile sculpture by Hyacinthe Ouattara, self-taught artist from Burkina Faso who inaugurated the Paris gallery’s brand-new residency program in January. The walls around it are covered with colorful, powerful images by Kenyan photographer Thandiwe Muriu. She takes pictures of fellow countrywomen who she makes visible, fearing that they would otherwise go unnoticed. Until now, Muriu titled her works with the word “CAMO,” as in camouflage. CAMO 45 II 2022, featuring a red-lipped woman dressed in black and white, marked the last entry in the series, paving the way for the most recent works on view here. These new works confirm that Muriu is an artist whose work is becoming increasingly liberated.
Mahi Binebine at Katharina Maria Raab
It is almost impossible not to stop in front of Mahi Binebine’s mask-like faces. Made by mixing tar, string, and pencil on canvas, and later by carving or scraping away at the paintings, these works appear almost sculptural. Those scarred characters with only one eye open: are they suffering, or on the contrary, are they healing? Are they hurt or sleepy? The mystery in which they are shrouded taps something universal, even if each face appears to belong to an individuated person. In the background of some is handwritten text whose sentences mean nothing. The text alludes to Binebine’s other line of work: he’s also an internationally acclaimed author who’s writes about the human condition and solitude. It’s almost as if a secret language was shaping up before us, one that has the power to free the unconscious.
Abdoulaye Konaté at Galerie 38
Casablanca-based Galerie 38 is showing “Where it all begins, where it all continues,” a group presentation that’s meant to spotlight the friendship between artists Abdoulaye Konaté, Barthélémy Toguo, Soly Cissé and Siriki Ky. “They are inseparable,” said Fihr Kettani, cofounder of the gallery. “What better way to celebrate the opening of our new space in Marrakech [the same day as the VIP preview of the fair], a space meant to connect artists, collectors and art lovers, than to celebrate such a solid bond.”
Konaté’s textile works stand out most. Hommage à la femme marocain features a range of greens that could be interpreted as a tribute to the Sahel region, the field of persisting droughts, to Mother Nature, and by extension to women. All of his other hues are also imbued with symbolism: points to life, white to death, black to chaos, blue to Mali (where he was born in 1953), yellow to sun, and green to hope. Dubbed “The Master” within his home country, Konaté has helped foster multiple generations of African artists, including 35-year-old Ibrahim Ballo, whose painted, embroidered, and woven portraits on denim are showcased around the corner, at Galerie Carole Kvasnevski’s booth.
Kehinde Wiley at Templon
Daniel Templon, whose namesake gallery has spaces in Paris, Brussels, and New York, had never been to the Moroccan fair before this year. “We had started collaborating with African artists when we decided to take part in the edition that was eventually canceled because of Covid,” Anne-Claudie Coric, the gallery’s executive director, said. “It really made sense for us to represent them in Marrakech. We could not be happier to be here.”
The highlight of the booth is a monumental portrait of a young Senegalese man; the painting became the backdrop for many selfies taken by fair visitors. In 2012, Kehinde Wiley spotted 16-year-old Idrissa Ndiaye in the streets of Dakar and asked if he would sit for him in his finest clothes. Nothing was more precious to the boy than the yellow football support T-shirt he picked to wear. Next to this glorious portrait—the first that Wiley painted in Africa—hangs a mixed-media composition by Senagalese painter Omar Ba and an eye-catching textile work by Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté, whose work can also be seen at Galerie 38’s booth across the aisle.
Reggie Khumalo at Mmarthouse
Reggie Khumalo became familiar with Ubuntu, a philosophy based on the principle that we should all be united and kind to one another, while riding from Cape Town to Casablanca for charity on his motorbike. That’s when he decided to use his works to raise money for young people from underprivileged communities.
“I believe that art can be a vehicle for social change, and I subscribe fully to that idealism,” said the artist. It’s the same belief that led bankers and passionate collectors Busi Ntombela and Muzi Mavuso to found Mmarthouse in 2017. They don’t define it as a gallery, however. Instead, they consider Mmarthouse a platform for talents they want to put forward. “As much as we want some works for ourselves, the desire to share them with the rest of the world remains stronger,” Ntombela said. “We usually give it a month after a show, before we even consider buying a piece.”
Khumalo’s presentation at the fair is titled “Black Gold,” reference to the hues he’s painted his models in, and it’s accompanied by the hashtag #GoldenIsTheNewBlack, which the artist launched on Instagram to describe his art. The central piece at this booth, The Filly Joins the Party, is the only one to feature several full-length figures; it sold on the fair’s first day. The piece of clothing that inspired the reclining woman’s dress was pinned to the lower edge of the canvas to extend her representation into the real world.