Highlights of the 6th edition of 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair

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Ibrahim El Salahi, Meditation Tree, Courtyard Installation, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair
Ibrahim El Salahi, Meditation Tree, Courtyard Installation, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair

The courtyard installation for the 154 Art fair at Somerset house has become a feature in its own right, setting the pace for what lies ahead within the walls of the age-old building.

This year, Ibrahim El-Salahi did the honors, bringing to life his tree drawings in the shape of a set of 3 sculptural wooden trees. Lined up in the courtyard, they represented various stages of growth in the life cycle of a Tree.

The first one stood at barely a meter – the same height as some of the children playing in the courtyard and most of the time overlooked by the adults walking by. As you advanced in the courtyard, past the middle tree, the third one, reveals itself in all its glory as a majestic sculpture whose trunk is the ideal backdrop for adults’ selfies, and whose exposed roots are uneven toys for children.

This metaphor of growth could very well apply to the fair itself. Over the last six years, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair has matured from a peripheral rendezvous for African Art lovers to become one of the highlights in the art calendar during London Frieze week.

While this year’s edition stood at about the same size as last years’ with 43 galleries and over 130 artists, the quality of the selection continues to improve year after year.

The selection ranges from emerging artist, such as Ian Mwesiga to established ones such as Yinka Shonibare, (who was exhibiting for the first time at the fair) and everything in between.

Elias Sime, Tighrope (9) While Observing...,2018
Elias Sime, Tighrope (9) While Observing…,2018

Sharing the same gallery and space as Yinka Shonibare was the Ethiopian artist Elias Sime. He uses the daily electrical waste of our modern society to build textured portraits. Still, among the emerging African Artists, Ian Mwesiga’s diptych Adam, Eve of Genesis has been a huge draw at the fair. His treatment and representation of the black body echo the work of Kerry James Marshall whose latest show opened last week in London.

Keyezua, Floating Nightmares Series
Keyezua, Floating Nightmares Series

In another register, artist Keyezua examines issues about immigration in a series of eye-catching new works “Floating nightmares.” Immigration and mutating identity are at the heart of L.R. Vandy’s sculptures; old boats transformed into beautiful contemporary masks.

LR Vandy, Golden, 2015
LR Vandy, Golden, 2015

On the opposite side of the building in the east wing, Peju Alatise presented an arresting installation that deals with the trauma and the heartbreak of immigration. Dozens of small figures precariously perched on paddles covered with dyed textiles. It floods the viewers with questions about displacement, lost identity and what people take with them once they set out on their immigration journey.

Aicha Snoussi, Undefined Scrolls, 2018
Aicha Snoussi, Undefined Scrolls, 2018

Meanwhile, Aicha Snoussi’s installation called for complete stillness. Her wallpaper inscribed with Arabic text, incomprehensible to most viewers, was akin to old scriptures or messages that were written on parchments. Breaking the sea of black words and drawings are signs of pink vulva hintting at transgression and to the artist’s preoccupation with the women’s space in society.

Athi-Patra Ruga, At the End of the Rainbow We Look Back, 2018
Athi-Patra Ruga, At the End of the Rainbow We Look Back, 2018

The space occupied by the queer community, the deconstruction of their overtly hyper-sexualised images is at the heart of the showstopper project of the fair: “Athis-Patha Ruga’s solo exhibition, of Gods, Rainbows and omissions.” The multimedia show encompasses photography, video, and tapestry originating from different bodies of work. The show culminates in the last room, turned into a secular sanctuary with two elegant glass tainted windows, a new medium of work for the South African artist. In the center of the room, on a mirrored pedestal surrounded by light, there is a dazzling human size sculpture richly adorned with gold and red flowers that pay homage to Feral Benga, the gay icon of the Paris of the twenties. In enacting one of Feral Benga’s famous poses and turning it into a spectacular sculpture, Athis-Patra Ruga has achieved what he set out to do, fight against the erasure of these icons from the collective memory.

Individually, each story speaks of the talents, innovation, and sensitivities of each artist. Collectively the stories paint a picture of a stylistically diverse continent. Just like Ibrahim El Sahali sculptural trees, the Contemporary African Art Fair continues to grow. With every edition, the fair reasserts itself as the place to catch the best glimpse of this blooming creativity.

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