The world's largest fair for contemporary African paintings, sculptures, photography, and more, is on display this weekend at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Debuting in New York during Frieze Week at the Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the fair features the work of 60 emerging and established artists whose practices and projects are rooted in the continent, including William Kentridge, prolific photographer Malick Sidibé, Younes Baba-Ali, and Edson Chagas, star of the Angolan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.
1:54 is a relatively small fair, founded in London in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui. “Contemporary African art is continuing to rise and it is time for it to get the attention it duly deserves,” El Glaoui, the fair's director, and the daughter of one of Morocco’s most prominent artists, Hassan El Glaoui, explains. "The goal is visibility and to show how diverse the contemporary African art scene is today.” It, of course, faces the challenge of trying to fit the diverse practices of each artist under one banner. This, when considering that the long running Western issue of grouping the large continent together as a whole, has the potential to disorient the individual natures of the works. However, "[1:54] doesn’t seek to homogenize Africa’s multiplicity," El Glaoui says, "far from it, it works to acknowledge a diverse range of art scenes, voices and artistic production. If, she explains, a theme runs throughout, it's "contributing toward a visibility surrounding alternative, marginalized identities," using the artists’ own personal identities as points of departure.
Lawrence Lemaoana’s sculptural work I didn’t join the struggle to be poor, for instance, is a sign made of the African National Congress flag. It speaks directly to the current perception in South Africa that politicians are taking resources that belong rightly to the people. In his work, Lemaoana, a former star Rugby player, often deals with his upbringing and his entry into the once whites-only world of the professional sport.
Billie Zangewa’s Ma vie en rose and Homecoming, two silk tapestries at the Afronova booth, both draw on the artist changing's womanhood to make a sentiment about gender equity. In Ma vie en rose, Zangewa can be seen holding her daughter on her hip with one hand while she fixes the child a bottle with the other. Homecoming tracks back to an earlier period in the artist’s life where she can be seen standing in the middle of the street, peering powerfully in the direction of a would-be camera. The richly colorful textiles seem to comment on the artist's process of forging her own identity by denying both the male gaze and traditional notions of family.
Entitled, Odds, Rim Battal’s photographic works at the Voice Gallery booth, consider the geography of the female body as a colonized land, using cartography as a vehicle for the plight facing most African countries up until the 1950s. In Odds #1, the Moroccan born-artist draws rectangular shapes reading “papa,” and, “Mali,” in an effort to bring to light a reconsideration of the structural and social inequalities that have marked both the female and her homeland.
At Mariane Ibrahim Gallery's booth, artists Ruby Amaze and Maimouna Guerresi also use femininity as their points of departure. But the portraits of Ayana V. Jackson, a photographer represented by the gallery, instead speak to the diasporic nature of the African and African-American identity. In the work, Does the brown paper bag test really exist? Will my father be proud, which was shown previously at Studio Museum in Harlem, Jackson, who grew up in New Jersey but lives and works in Johannesburg, uses her own body to recreate a late 19th century photograph taken during colonial expansion in the Americas and Africa. She does this to create a collection of images that reconcile the real with the imagined identities of those still living in Africa and African diasporas.
Breaking the focus away from the identity politics is William Kentridge’s Universal Archive, a series of linocuts on pages of old dictionaries. They sit at the entrance of the fair and represent for the artist a state of “productive procrastination.”
But South African artist Wayne Barker’s series of beads strung on boards at the Circa Gallery address identity in a more humorous way. In the mixed-media painting Land Mines, Baker depicts a rural healer. “I call her the church lady because she would come from the mountain with her face painted white and she looked like a mime,” he says of the figure he first saw walking on the streets of Cape Town. Asked why she was wearing headphones, he explained, “It’s a sign that the east is really taking over.” Over the last three decades Baker has used a bittersweet mix of politics and playfulness to question local practices in a broader international context. His feelings about the fair are perhaps most salient as you walk through the RA Projects-designed space: “I think it is great work, actually it is quite tough—it’s not just trendy art,” he explains. “It is political, whether that’s a good thing or bad thing. It is, what it is.”
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Pioneer Works through May, 17, 2015.