TOURIA EL GLAOUI IN BROOKLYN, APRIL 2017. PHOTO: VICTORIA STEVENS.
Some years ago, before certain elected officials would turn the concept of globalism into something to be afraid of, rather than embrace, Touria El Glaoui—founder of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which opened at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn today and runs through Sunday—began considering a frustrating reality. In her eyes, the entire continent of African art and its diaspora were largely being ignored by the mainstream Western world. El Glaoui grew up in the Moroccan art world—she is the daughter of one of that county’s most famous painters, Hassan El Glaoui—but was living in London and pursuing a corporate career. Eventually moved to action by what she considered an urgent lack of representation, she reached out to her African and European art world connections, assembled a team of artists, galleries, curators, and participating institutions, and launched the first edition of 1:54 at London’s Somerset House in October 2013. The fair, which takes its name from the 54 independent countries in Africa, featured work from over 70 artists and 15 galleries, as well as FORUM, a talks program helmed by curator Koyo Kouoh. It was by all accounts a success: 1:54 immediately gave exposure to artists who might previously have been unknown, and inaugurated a badly needed cultural conversation.
“The mission of 1:54, when we started in London, was to give visibility to artists; we wanted to give them access where they never had access before,” El Glaoui says. “We thought London was the base to give them visibility. New York seemed to be the second most important space.” And so two years later, El Glaoui launched the stateside iteration of the fair (in addition to London), housed in the airy, industrial chic Pioneer Works. This year’s edition, the third in New York, features 19 galleries from countries including Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, the U.K., the U.S., and South Africa. Some of the standout artists showing include Benin-based Romuald Hazoumè, known for his subversive mask works, and South African photographer Jodi Bieber. “We try to be open in terms of the definition of the artists we include in the fair,” El Glaoui says, referring to her fairly inclusive definition of the diaspora, “but we have always been objective to the best work that comes out of the continent.”
The fair’s message of cultural cross-pollination feels especially charged with all that’s happening politically, but El Glaoui says founding the fair was not an explicitly political act. “That wasn’t the focus,” she says. “We wanted it to be about the politics of the art, and the fact that these artists deserve space on an international platform.” That being said, this year’s FORUM will be guided by the theme of resistance. “We look to the radical traditions of artmaking in search of strategies for political liberation,” Kouoh writes in her curatorial statement. Artists Charles Gaines, Sondra Perry, and Derrick Adams will be among those in conversation.
Recently, it was announced 1:54 will yet again expand: this time to Marrakesh, in February of 2018. “We wanted to be on the continent eventually, but we needed a collection base that was strong enough to host us,” El Glaoui says. Paired with Marrakesh’s cultural renaissance—there is a film festival there and a biennale—and easy airline access, it felt like the right move. And if it’s any further indication that the art world tides are changing, there was this news: Sotheby’s is holding its first-ever modern and contemporary African art sale later this month. It will be in London, the place 1:54 began.
1:54 CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART FAIR IS ON VIEW AT PIONEER WORKS IN NEW YORK FROM TODAY, MAY 5, THROUGH MAY 7, 2017.