1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair: Beyond the return to Marrakesh

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Entrance 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair
Entrance 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair Marrakesh

The Marrakesh edition of the Contemporary African Art fair 1:54 returned from February 21st to 24th.

With a total of 18 galleries and 60 artists, the fair held at the luxurious hotel La Mamounia remained a compact show even when compared to the London and New York editions.

However what the fair lacked in size, it more than made up for in the quality of the Art on offer, the curated talks dedicated to Afro Surrealism and more importantly the overall art program in Marrakesh.

The African Art fair opened with Ibrahim El Salahi’s solo show at the Vigo Gallery, building on last year’s success when the gallery presented the artist’s works surrounding a central piece of the home talent Hassan Hajjaj.

This year, the gallery’s booth comprised exclusively Ibrahim El-Salahi’s small format notebook series, drawn in 2013.

Constrained by the physical restrictions imposed by age, the artist continues to create, using the most basic of tools: small pieces of paper and black pen. Mysterious figures and shapes emerge from the most intricate drawings, and if you look closely (which you must to truly appreciate this series) new miniature faces emerge within the maelstrom of lines and dots.

The booth set the qualitative tone for the art fair, that was overall a savvy combination of old and new (and everything in between) whether it pertained to the artworks, the artists or the galleries.

On the heels of Omar Victor Diop’s acclaimed first solo UK show at the Autograph ABP last year, part of his Liberty series continued to draw crowds to Gallery Magnin-A’s booth. The gallery had been showing at the fair since its inception in London and also attended the first Marrakesh edition in 2018.

At Loft Art Gallery, Joana Choumali’s latest textured photographs (part of the ongoing series Alba’Hian) were pre-eminently displayed alongside the textile work of South African artist Siwa Mgoboza and the pictures of Moroccan artists Hicham Benohoud and Mohamed Lekleti.

For their first attendance to the fair, Gallery Sinya stepped away from the white cube and opted for a bright green background that complemented the vibrant work of their local Moroccan artists, including Ali Maimoun. He drew on his previous skills of carpenter to create intricate textured figures using “colored sawdust.”

By the end of the fair, the signs of a successful art fair were apparent with red dots affixed on the information cards. The five gallery representatives I spoke to, reported higher than expected sales or contacts with institutions for further talks.

While high level of sales is not a negligible measure of success in and of itself, the clout of the fair lies beyond its walls. In contrast to London where 1:54 fits snuggly in Frieze week and benefits from the crowds of collectors in town, the Marrakesh edition is the headlining act that sets the pace for the cluster of other art exhibitions and events scheduled the same week. Put together, they are steadily turning this 3rd week of February into a major milestone in the art calendar.

Beyond the Fair

Comptoir des Mines, a contemporary art gallery situated in Gueliz, the modern part Marrakesh, launched on Feb 21st the exhibition “African Poetry.” Poetry, if you look it up comes from the Greek word poesis, which means making. These artists are making and translating visually the main concerns that are raging through their contemporary societies: from the issues of repatriation of the African Art work (Youness Atbane’s installation the Abandoned Museum, 2019) to the destruction of the environment (Mustapha Akrim’s Nature Morte, 2019) or fractured territories (Mohamed Arejdal) What becomes apparent as you follow the thread of words turned into images, installations and sculptures over the 3 floors of the exhibition is the plurality of contemporary Africa, all too often still reduced to stereotypes.

In an interview with Imane Barakat of Comptoir des Mines, she said they “are fighting against the exoticism attached to Africa and Morocco. We want to be ambassadors for the country and the continent and show other realities that are expressed visually by artists.”

Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited #32
Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited #32, Galerie Tindouf

The painstaking endeavor of deconstructing myths and stereotypes continues at Galerie Tindouf with the exhibition “Beyond the Gaze” by Lalla Essaydi.

Since the 19th century, the production of “Orientalist” images (paintings and photographs) and their subsequent wide distribution as postcards have cemented an exotic and erotic image of Northern African women in the collective memories.

Essaydi subverts the codes of orientalism, (beautiful women, in sumptuous decor, dressed in lavish outfits and adopting languorous postures) to create images that portray women rooted in their traditions with Arabic henna inscriptions on their bodies. This time though, the women are depicted with defiant looks. They are often looking sternly at the viewer, demanding that they look beyond the caricature and go beyond the simplistic gaze.

Accrochage Indiscipline, Cyril Boixel
Accrochage Indiscipline Feb 2019 Cyril Boixel_hd-55

Further afield, outside Marrakesh, it is the plurality of medium of expressions in art that is celebrated. Montresso Art Foundation brought back the second act of its Art program In Discipline, which turns the spotlight on the art scene of a particular country. After Benin last year, it is Ivory Coast that has the honor of the second edition.

Whether they are depicting ecological disaster (Pascal Konan), highlighting issues of identy (Yeanzi) or translating the concept of mental slavery into tangible work (Joachim Silue), the 5 artists (including also Gopal Dagnogo and Armand Boua) are all working at the crossroads of several art disciplines. Together they offer a glimpse into the diversity of style and art expressions that comes out of this western African country and its diaspora.

Macaal, Clay Apenouvon, Les Passeurs, 2019
Macaal, Clay Apenouvon, Les Passeurs, 2019

At Macaal’s, Material Insanity is all about the Material. For the second year running, the museum has launched a wide-ranging exhibition to coincide with 1:54 art fair. Spread over the 2 floors of the building, Material Insanity, is a vast investigation into the way African artists have harnessed materials, old and new, soft or hard, solid or liquid to create works that speak of issues of their times: Immigration, identity, FGM to name a few.

Speaking to Claire Guinet of Montresso Art Foundation, she said the fair has brought an “added international exposure” to the artists exhibited at the foundation. The same could be said of the whole Marrakeshi art scene and the artists the city plays host to during the fair. As an Arabic and French speaking city, Marrakesh has become a dynamic platform for fellow-French speaking African artists, allowing them to gain further exposure for their work.

A long-standing colonial legacy that pervades the art world has parted the African continent into roughly 3 blocks: Northern Africa, the French speaking countries and the English speaking ones. With each passing edition, the fair is slowly (at least from an art perspective) bridging the gap between these sub parts of the continent. From 1:54 to Macaal, from Comptoir des Mines to Art Monteresso and elsewehere, what emerged from this week, besides the buoyant art scene, is Marrakesh’s unique opportunity to become a more diverse and inclusive art hub, one that might be able to challenge the current African art duopoly of Lagos and Cape Town. I hope the city lives up to that high expectation.

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