1-54 Art fair: The Quest for Artistic Excellence

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This year’s 1-54 art fair in London was a real delight. Galleries from across Africa and the diaspora showcased art from the four corners of the continent including artists from Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe.

London’s art calendar is super charged at this time of year. 1-54 takes place at the same as Frieze, This Art Fair, Roy art fair and so many others major art exhibition. It is a whirlwind for art lovers as there is much to stimulate the senses. Either way, indifference is not really an option. 1-54 is an oasis in the midst of the clamour. The rooms in Somerset House are well-appointed, allowing visitors to browse at their ease. I could not help but feel a bit like Alice, travelling through my very own wonderland.

For this year’s courtyard commission, it was the Angolan artist, Kilunaji Kia Henda whose large sculpture entitled “The Fortress” was displayed. The cube structures are unyielding yet open to the elements, a reference to the ephemeral nature of human constructions as witnessed in the Namib desert.

The Special Projects space in the basement area was occupied by the Ethiopian photographer, Aida Muluneh. She photographed women in extreme condition in Dallol, the driest desert on earth. Her work focuses on the depleting access to water and the gendered role of women.

On the upper floor, Mary Sibande’s “I Came Apart at the Seams” was the first solo sculptural and photography exhibition in the UK by the South African artist. “Long live the dead queen” formed part of the installation work spanning from 2008 to 2013.

On the same floor, the monochrome paintings and drawings by the famous Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El Salahi, were shown by the Vigo Gallery.

On the first floor, I get a chance to interview the artist, Victor Ekpuk, who is quiet-spoken and very affable.

His sculptural works, including “The woman in the mirror” were presented by TAFETA art gallery. Formerly a cartoonist in Nigeria, he transitioned into full-time art over ten years ago and hasn’t looked back. He started off by exploring nsibidi graphics and writing systems in Nigeria and has broadened the discourse to reimagine graphic symbols and its linkages to the human condition. Ekpuk is known for his singular use of primary colours and African aesthetic. He was invited to start the first residency at Arthouse in Lagos and in 2016, he had a solo exhibition there.

His foray into sculpture is a recent one. He tells me he has been expanding his ideas on identity and the work which is generally two-dimensional into a more tactile representation.

Photo of  V. Ekpuk and one of his sculptures

Ekpuk smiles a lot and is benevolent with his replies. He has a huge sculptural installation project in Bahrain which is to be unveiled in a matter of months. There is a lot to do before then, like verifying the dimensions with engineers, the durability of the sculpture given the desertic weather conditions and that it matches as best possible, his original conception.

He now lives in the US and works on projects around the world. He will be on show at The Amory Show in NYC next year, and the first book on his art will be launched at the LABAF on November 5th in Lagos.

SMO Contemporary showcased works by Tyna Adebowale, Kelani Abass and Sanaa Gateja. Each has something unique to offer. Abass is a multidisciplinary artist who successfully navigates the space between flat and multi-dimensional art, while Adebowale’s faces are compelling, filling the large spaces they occupy as though they have always been there and we are only just noticing them. The black paint for the faces she uses is juxtaposed against the bright colours and the white of the canvas. Gateja’s large wall hangings cannot be simply defined as tapestry and yet, with the intricately rolled paper, beads and natural materials, pulled and sewn together, it is easy to consider them as contemporary masterpieces of sculptural tapestry.

Equally notable at this exhibition were works by Peju Alatise whose three ceramic and painted installation works were remarkable, while Bisi Butler’s textile work and Alexis Peskine’s nail portraits left you moved by the complexity of their portraiture interpretations.

It was interesting to see how several artists used repurposed materials like plastic bags and wood, perhaps as a nod to the global discourse on climate change or just their personal take on environmental issues. Whatever can be imagined about the future, it holds true that 1-54 is here to stay and the artists from the African continent still have a lot to give.


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