1:54 Marrakech edition is reshaping the African Art Map

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entrance to 1:54 Art fair in Marrakech
Entrance 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech. La Mamounia

After London and New York, 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair staged its first edition on African soil at La Mamounia in Marrakech from 22nd to 25th of February.

The highlights of the first edition

This African debut reflected the experience and the reputation built by 1:54 since its beginning in London 5 years ago. The Marrakech edition was carefully orchestrated with 17 galleries representing a balanced mixed of about fifty, emerging and established artists alongside local talents. Similar to their other programs, this edition included an educational section, FORUM; a series of talks curated by Omar Berrada on the theme “Always decolonise.”

The fair opened with a spectacular installation by Abdoulaye Konate, whose work was presented by both Blain Southern and Primo Marella galleries and is also included in the permanent collection of the Museum MACAAL whose preview I attended (more on the next blog). The artist is renowned for his large-scale textile installations where brushstrokes are replaced with thin strips of fabric carefully arranged to form abstract or figurative works.

Opposite, at the centre of Vigo Gallery‘s booth, was a vibrant, bold and red picture, Marmouche (2012) by the photographer Hassan Hajjaj. He is, of course, one of the most renowned Moroccan artists whose dazzling framed pictures have challenged stereotypical images of his native country and its inhabitants.


Ibrahim El-Salahi, Illustration
Ibrahim El-Salahi, Left: Illustration N. 1 for Tayeb SAlih’s novel Maryud, 1977. Right Untitled 1995. Vigo Gallery

The vibrancy of Hassan Hajjaj’s Artwork was complemented by the minimalist small-scale series of paintings imbued with calligraphic forms and shapes, typical of Ibrahim Al-Sahili’s work. The artist leaves most of his paintings untitled as an invitation for the viewers to engage with his work and create their own interpretations for it.

"Interwoven" Series, Kyle Meyer. Yossi Milo Gallery
“Interwoven” Series, Kyle Meyer. Yossi Milo Gallery at 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech

Further along, Kyle Meyer raises questions about the tolerance of sexual orientations with his “Interwoven” series. His striking portraits turn the spotlight on the dual identities and fragmented lives led by the LGBT Community in South Africa.

Joana Choumali, "Ca Va Aller" Series, 2016, Loft Art Gallery
Joana Choumali, “Ca Va Aller” Series, 2016, Loft Art Gallery, 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech

Joana Choumali’s “Ca Va Aller” Series was a moving sight once more (some other works of the series were shown at the AKAA fair in Paris). It was created in response to the terror attack in Abidjan in 2016. The photographs featuring colored embroideries speak of the effort put into piecing together a city and lives shattered by trauma.

Survivre, Kiripi Katempo, 2012. Gallery Magnin-A. 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech
Survivre, Kiripi Katempo, 2012. Gallery Magnin-A. 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech

Capturing the fleeting water reflection of daily mini-traumas and struggles was an Art form that Kiripi Katempo made his specialty. The photographer from the Democratic Republic of Congo shot to fame in 2009 with his series “ Un Regard.” Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly in 2015. His pictures continue to bear witness to the lives of his fellow countrymen and women. Here, “Survivre” is a touching projection of a lonely boy walking in the streets.

"Weke" Series by Namsa Leuba
“Weke” Series by Namsa Leuba, 2017. Art Twenty One, 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech

Beyond the visible social, economic signs of strife, Namsa Leuba latest series “Weke,” dive into the spiritual world of Voodoo in Benin. Blending performance and photography, facts and fiction, she continues to explore African representation in collective western imagination through carefully staged pictures. Aside from the superb aesthetical value of “Weke,” the series is reminiscent of some anthropological Voodoo pictures and testifies of the inability to grasp the invisible and somehow reduce “the other” to a mere and simple picture.

Forum : “Decolonising Knowledge,”

The meticulously curated artworks paint together a picture of a multifaceted and diverse Africa. A continent, whose artists, academics and multidisciplinary thought-leaders are working with local communities to showcase and protect their heritage. That was the theme of the talk “Decolonising Knowledge,” moderated by Omar Berrada. During the discussion, the panelists Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Donna Kukama and Ahmed Skounti, acting in their capacity, respectively, of historian and artist, artist and anthropologist spoke of how they are working at a grass roots level or at the state level, to challenge the status quo in the cultural field. Oforiatta-Ayim is leading a team effort to write the first African encyclopedia, whereas Donna Kukama is leading the charge against tuition fees in South Africa to make high-level education more accessible and diverse. Ahmed Skounti is a scholar and a UNESCO Consultant dealing with the question of intangible cultural heritage. They are facilitating the emergence of a new narrative, written by the Africans, which depicts a multi-layered continent and moves beyond the binary pre/post colonization prism through which African history has been perceived so far.

Panel for the talk Decolonising Knowledge
Panel of the Talk “Decolonising Knowledge”. Left to Right: Omar Berrada, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Ahmed Skounti and Donna Kukama

With such a compelling program of talks and selection of Artwork the event attracted, according to the organisers, about 4000 visitors. The galleries I spoke to reported a sales level above what was expected of a first edition. It is a testament of 1:54 Art Fair’s reputation and ability to draw in Art buyers and overall the movers and shakers of the art world.

The redesign of Africa’s cultural map 

Beyond the commercial success, this latest expansion has turned the fair into a catalyst that is redesigning Africa’s cultural map. The choice of Marrakech has broken down a traditional barrier between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa; a historical divide that permeated the Art world and meant that in the past, Northern African artists were often categorized under “Islamic,” “Middle East” labels rather than African. Further to the Anglophile editions of New York and London, this African edit will help build stronger links with the French-speaking cultural communities and provide significant visibility to emerging francophone artists. It also marks a foothold in the French-speaking African art Market – admittedly a smaller niche than the Anglophone market – but one that is likely to grow. Lastly, it is aligned with the City’s ambition to become a continental African Art hub and form with Cape Town and Lagos, a golden African art triangle. A cluster of special projects, exhibitions and performance were held at MACAAL, Comptoir des Mines Galerie, Montresso Art Foundation, Musee Yves Saint Laurent and other galleries and museums in conjunction with the art fair, turning Marrakech into a citywide platform for Contemporary African Art. The overall success of this first edition is a good omen for the years to come and will hopefully serve as an impetus to bring back Marrakech Biennale after this year’s cancellation.

The conversation about Contemporary African Art continues online:

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