Hot Demand for African Art at London’s 1-54 Fair

The ninth edition of 1-54 London featured a record number of galleries from Africa and strong sales underlining the demand for art from Africa and its diaspora

1-54 at Somerset House. Photo by Jim Winslet
1-54 at Somerset House. © Photo by Jim Winslet

Always pushing the against the odds, in 2020 1-54: Contemporary African Art Fair was one of the only fairs to continue to stage physical editions as most retreated to the digital sphere during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Touria El Glaoui, its determined founder and director, forged ahead and staged physical editions in Marrakech, Paris, and London—the only in-person fair to take place in the British capital in October 2020. This time last year it opened its doors as a hybrid digital-cum-physical event in its regular location of Somerset House with only 20 exhibitors staging booths—close to half of its normal participation. This year, its returned to its London birthplace for its ninth edition stronger than ever—with a record 48 exhibitors, among which 20 are from Africa. 

The UK’s relaxed pandemic travel restrictions made it finally possible for many to travel to London without having to undergo the previous mandatory 10-day quarantine. The return of Frieze London and Frieze Masters also meant that footfall to the British capital soared during the week of 11-17 October, with many scuttling between the African fair, Frieze and other exhibitions and events in London. 

“It feels like a celebration,” El Glaoui told Artskop. “People are just so happy to be back. Artists from Africa and the African diaspora are having a real moment because you can see that most of the galleries outside the fair are now presenting artists from African descent. There’s something about this moment—whether it is due to Black Lives Matter or something else—

There is definitely an engagement that we have not seen before in terms of VIP collectors booking in advance to buy.”

Strong Sales and Record African Galleries at 1-54 London’s Ninth Edition 

Nate Lewis, Signaling XLV Hand sculpted inkjet print, ink, graphite and frottage, 2021. 26 x 40 in. 66 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy Fridman Gallery
Nate Lewis, Signaling XLV, 2021. Hand sculpted inkjet print, ink, graphite and frottage. 26 x 40 in. 66 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy Fridman Gallery

Sales were swift and strong, with many galleries having sold artworks even before the VIP’s opening day—a fact El Glaoui admitted that left many collectors disappointed and surprised as they eagerly rushed to the fair to buy during the fair’s first few hours. 

“Many of the collectors were upset because many of the works were sold already,” said El Glaoui. “People are selling early because the times are difficult, and dealers want to be sure that there is a real return.”

The first work guests confronted was “Nothing Can Separate Us,” the vibrant commissioned installation by London-based artist Lakwena Maciver placed in the courtyard of Somerset House of 20 paintings showcasing full-sized basketball courts—each roughly 3 x 1.5 meters—painted in acrylic with powerful messages in both English and African languages. While guests relished in moments to take a pause on the works before entering to the main exhibition, most were unaware that half of the sculptures, from the series “I’ll bring you flowers,” had already been sold in the realm of $27,400 by Vigo Gallery.

Fridman Gallery from New York almost sold out on the first day, selling a $50,000 work by Nate Lewis to a museum in Cardiff, Wales as well as another work by the artist for $28,000 to a collector on the Tate Acquisitions Committee, and two works by Ethiopian Hana Yilma Godine for $25,000 to a Paris-based collector.

London and Accra-based Gallery 1957 sold several works in the opening hours of the fair for between $4,800 and 27,500. The gallery showed works by Serge Attukwei Clottey, Godfried Donkor, Afia Prempeh, Lord Ohene, Arthur Timothy and Cornelius Annor. 

Long-time 1-54 fair participant Addis Fine Art from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was on a roll this year. The gallery, which recently opened a new permanent 2,000 square foot space in London on Eastcastle Street, in the heart of Fitzrovia’s gallery district, was in addition to 1-54, also participating in Frieze London for the first time. It sold out its booth at Frieze, showcasing works by Biomorphic abstractionist painter Merikokeb Berhanu and at 1-54 they sold out works by Tesfaye Urgessa for approximately $13,700 each. 

“For 1-54 we decided to showcase works by four artists from the Ethiopia diaspora, who each broach topics of migration and race from their own personal lens,” Rakeb Sile told Artskop. The gallery’s booth at 1-54 showcased a multidisciplinary display of sculpture, minimalist abstract painting, collage, and figurative monotypes.

“For our first time exhibiting at frieze which is a major milestone for us, we are exhibiting the works of painter Merikokeb Berhanu who has been with us since the beginning, and we have always felt her work should be seen on the art world’s biggest stages, so we are delighted to be exhibiting her work at frieze London,” added Sile. 

Donald Wasswa, Nakintu, 2020, Albizia and ebony, 43 x 31 x 42 cm. Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery.
Donald Wasswa, Nakintu, 2020, Albizia and ebony, 43 x 31 x 42 cm.
Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery.

Other sales included four sculptures by Donald Wasswa priced between $4,800 and $10,300 and two hangings by Dickens Otieno for between $8,900 and $10,293 at Circle Art Gallery from Nairobi, Kenya, and three oil paintings on fabric by Bunmi Agusto from newcomer DADA Gallery from Lagos, Nigeria. The paintings sold for approximately $11,000 to a London-Nigerian-based collector. “Agusto“, says El Glaoui, “is an artist to watch.”

“We’ve had a great start to our fair season at 1-54,” said Linda Pyke, director of Cape Town-based THK Gallery. “It’s good to be back in a vibrant London, reconnecting with collectors, institutions and new art enthusiasts.” South Africa’s has had a particularly challenging run of coronavirus restrictions, with the country only taken off the UK’s red list on October 11, allowing entry for full-vaccinated South Africans.

“Our young artists are accessibly priced in the $6,900 to $15,000 range, we’ve had strong sales, including five Lulama Wolf paintings, five hand-made tapestries by Pierre Le Riche, four Lerato Motaung paintings, and three sculptures by Jake Michael Singer,” added Pyke. 

A Tune of Success for African Art at 1-54 London 

Mohammed Hamidi, Untitled(4),2021, Cellulose paint on canvas, 150x200cm. Courtesy of La Galerie 38.
Mohammed Hamidi, Untitled(4),2021, Cellulose paint on canvas, 150x200cm.
Courtesy of La Galerie 38.

For a market that is still relatively new to the art world, 1-54 London’s success is testament to the fact that art from Africa and its diasporas remains one of the art market’s most in demands segments. The 48 galleries hailed from 19 countries across Europe, Africa, and North America, including Angola, Belgium, Brazil, Ivory Coast, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Kenya, Morocco, Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Switzerland, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States. “We had the biggest number ever of applicants—around 100,” said El Glaoui. “This was a real surprise given that we were still dealing with coronavirus restrictions.”

This year the fair welcomed galleries from Brazil for the first time, marking a new venture into the African diaspora. “There’s a new trend towards Afro-Brazilian art now,” said El Glaoui. Participating galleries from Brazil included HOA Gallery from São Paulo.

Always at the cutting-edge of the art world’s latest ventures while bringing them home to Africa, 1-54 also staged, as part of its special projects, a collaboration with Christie’s: the Osinachi x Christie’s NFT Series. The fair is pairing up with Christie’s in an auction of Different Shades of Water, an NFT series by Nigerian crypto-artist Osinachi. The NFTs will be offered in Christie’s First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online auction sale, which is open to bidding until 19 October. 

Osinachi’s dreamy works could be seen at the end of Somerset House’s east wing. Born Prince Jason Osinachi Igwe, the visual artist explores personal experience within a technological environment and known as one of Africa’s leading crypto artists. “Aesthetically and through their creation, the artist’s work explores visible existence “as an act of protest,” according to a statement at the fair.

This year’s success and vibrancy signaled once again the intellectual, visual, and creative powerhouse that is art from Africa and its diasporas. Yet the journey is still ongoing as art from the continent and beyond now takes its rightful place in the international art world game. It’s a place as so many agree and as the wealth of new collectors, galleries, and artwork sales show, is here to stay.

“I always try to remind people that the value we put on art from the continent is still not at the level of western artists yet,” added El Glaoui. “Let’s not forget that the journey is still ongoing.”

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About the author

Rebecca Anne Proctor

Rebecca Anne Proctor is the former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she held since January 2015. Her writing has been published in The New York Times Style Magazine; Bloomberg Businessweek, Canvas, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, Arab News, Galerie, FOLIO, The National, ArtNews and The Business of Fashion. Rebecca obtained her M. Litt from Christie’s London in Modern and Contemporary Art History after which she worked at Gagosian Gallery before moving to Paris to pursue a double MA in Middle Eastern Studies and Conflict Resolution from the American University of Paris and a Master’s in Sociologie des Conflits (Sociology of Conflicts) from the L’Institut Catholique.

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