1-54: a decade of promoting contemporary African art celebrated in London

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the much anticipated 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair returns to the prestigious spaces of Somerset House from October 13 to 16. In addition to exhibiting an increasingly attractive selection of artists from Africa and its diaspora, this London edition will feature a rich parallel program of events to cap off this four-day celebration. 

For ten years now, 1-54 has been the leading art fair dedicated to promoting the artistic and intellectual effervescence emerging from the African continent and its diaspora. After a very successful edition in New York last May, it is in the heart of London’s Somerset House, the emblematic place that saw the fair’s birth and growth, that 1-54 will celebrate its tenth anniversary from October 13 to 16. To highlight these ten years of the impetus for contemporary African art, a bet initially ambitious but quickly won for the founder Touria El Glaoui, she made sure to orchestrate an exceptional edition for this fair that has not ceased to thrill the art market since its debut in 2013. 

We are delighted to celebrate 1-54 London 10th anniversary with our flagship edition at Somerset House, where we have shown since our inception in 2013” says Touria El Glaoui, Founding Director, 1-54. “This milestone will see a bigger fair take over more space at Somerset House with a special courtyard installation and performance by the talented artist Grada Kilomba, which I can’t wait for the UK public to experience. We are looking forward to welcoming new galleries and artists along with our loyal regulars who have been on this journey with us for the past 10 years, without whom, we would not be here. — Touria El Glaoui, founder of 1-54 African Contemporary Art Fair

Significant numbers give substance to the scope of this tenth edition: 50 specialized galleries from 21 countries, the largest number of countries represented to date, will exhibit more than 130 African and diaspora artists whose approaches are as varied as their mediums. Of the 50 galleries present, 17 are established in Africa and 14 are attending the fair for the first time.

Dawit Adnew, Transient Beauty, 2022
Acrylic on canvas, 165x210cm. Courtesy of Addis Fine Art.

Overview and the emergence not to be missed 

For both connoisseurs and neophytes regarding contemporary African art, the 1-54 fair remains an essential moment to add to one’s list of favorite works and artists to discover. For example, portrait enthusiasts will be delighted by the stoic and powerful subjects of Nigerian painter Collins Obijiaku or the “Black kids from the hood” portraits of African-American Auudi Dorsey, both represented by Luce Gallery. For naive art and expressionism lovers, a visit to the Unit London gallery is a must to contemplate the work of the Zimbabwean artist Option Nyahunzvi, whose works serve as a medium to probe Shoa spirituality. Or at the THIS IS NOT A WHITE CUBE gallery where the eye will be delighted by the rhythmic paintings of Angolan artist Cristiano Mangovo who shares with the universe of the young Malian artist Famakan Magassa of the Albertz Benda gallery a free aesthetic and a bright palette. Sculpture enthusiasts are suggested to stop by the Montoro12 Gallery booth where the surrealist sculptures of South African artist Cow Mash will be highly appreciated for their intriguing essence or those of Namibian Stephane E. Conradie who plays with the effects of entanglement of domestic objects to explore the colonial history and creolization.

Alongside renowned artists such as Ibrahim El-Salahi, a key figure in African modernism, and photographers Hassan Hajjaj and Zanele Muholi, young emerging artists are not to be missed. Working and living in London, Sola Olulode, born in 1996, offers visuals of black and queer female intimacy in tender and profound scenes of connection that can be seen at the Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery. Let’s also highlight the work of the young Brazilian Pedro Neves exhibited by the Portas Vilaseca Galeria. His large format works are the result of his ongoing research into the historical complexities, particularly in relation to colonization, and identities that form the cultural fabric of his native country. For the 25-year-old artist, who presented his first solo exhibition Tripa earlier this year, this participation in 1-54 marks an important moment in his career.

Pedro Neves painting
Pedro Neves, Solidāo, 2022
Acrylic on canvas, 250 x 300 cm.
Credit: Rafael Salim, Courtesy of Portas Vilaseca Galeria.

A rich parallel programme

Alongside the exhibition, visitors to this tenth edition will definitely have something to enrich their visit with the remarkable agenda of activities organized for the occasion. 

A mandatory stop for visitors on Thursday and Friday is the Somerset House courtyard, where Grada Kilomba‘s huge installation O Barco/The Boat unfolds. At 32 meters long, the installation, composed of 140 charred wooden blocks engraved with multilingual poems, draws the shape of the lower hold of a former slave ship. The work addresses the memories of the Atlantic crossing in a singular poetry, which commemorates and lays the foundations for a common reflection on the future memorial forms of these millions of life stories marked by the transatlantic trade. While O Barco/The Boat has been on view at Somerset House since September 29, 2022, it is at 1-54 that the work will take its full form, with two dancing, singing and musical performances scheduled for October 13 and 14 respectively. No need to applaud the fair’s commitment to making this poignant work a major event in its program, a notable choice considering that the installation will come to life in the heart of a city historically charged regarding slavery. These performances will be presented for the first time to British eyes.

Grada Kilomba, O Barco The Boat, 2021, Performance
Grada Kilomba, O Barco The Boat, 2021
Performance and Installation view at MAAT, Lisbon for BoCA, 2021.
Photo by Bruno Simão. Courtesy of the Artist

The fair will also feature its traditional 1-54 Forum, a fruitful platform for dialogue between audiences and African and Afro-descendant artists, art historians and curators. Curated and directed by Omar Kholeif, the discussions are expected to be powerful moments of intellectual exchange, addressing issues of concern to Africans and the Diaspora. Topics to be discussed include black visual culture, the British anti-racist art movements of the 1980s, the tensions between tradition and contemporaneity in art, everyday racism, and the notion of “Africanity” from an identity perspective.

Finally, the 1-54 will please both the eyes and the taste buds. Moroccan-born artist Hassan Hajjaj will present “Love Letter,” a tea specially created for the fair that brings together a rich selection of spices and herbs from all over Africa, from vanilla to cocoa shells from Ghana to orange blossom from Tunisia. More than just a tea, these sweet and spicy notes make this aromatic blend a true taste journey through the richness of the African continent. Also, those visiting the VIP lounge will be greeted by a multi-sensory installation, the Chop Bar, a conceptual work by chef and restaurateur Akwasi Brenya-Mensa that takes the form of traditional Ghanaian chop bars, those roadside stalls where hearty portions of banku, fufu and omo tuo are served. With plastic chairs and tables, old gas cans as stools and paper napkins, the young Ghanaian-born chef seeks to immerse his guests in a personal interpretation of the African restaurant of the future and pay homage to the women behind this rich culinary heritage.

After ten years of dedication, sharing and highlighting African and Afro-descendant artists in the spotlight of the international art world, the 1-54 fair has continued to establish itself as a leading voice for contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. It is one of the most influential and ambitious extra- and intra-African events of its kind, with four recent editions in Marrakech and one planned for February 2023. This is all the more reason to make it your destination of choice this weekend.

Artskop3437 media partner of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

1-54 London 2022
From October 13 to 16
Somerset House, 
Strand, London WC2R 1LA,
United Kingdom

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About the author

Anaïs Auger-Mathurin

Anaïs Auger-Mathurin is a writer, independent curator and master's student at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). A graduate in art history from the Université de Montréal, her current research focuses on the commercial circuits of traditional art in West Africa with an emphasis on the commercial strategies and contemporary issues of West African dealers and antique dealers. A lover of the arts, history and words, she is passionate about African and Afro-descendant cultural and intellectual production and articulates her writings around the decolonization of Western views and institutions.