After its successful Parisian debut last year, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair makes its return to the French capital from April 7-10, 2022 at Christie’s auction house on Avenue Matignon. As the first and only international art fair dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, 1-54 (whose name refers to the 54 countries that constitute the African continent) will feature 23 international exhibitors presenting more than 50 artists in a larger event than last year’s. I speak with Touria El Glaoui, 1-54’s Founding Director, about the fair and the contemporary African art scene.
How and why did the idea to found 1-54 come about in 2013, what is the fair’s premise and which stereotypes about contemporary African art do you hope to dispel?
Contemporary arts from Africa and its diaspora have repeatedly been under- and misrepresented in arts scenes in the West, but it was after supporting my father with his exhibitions that I realized how little support or opportunity there was for artists from Africa trying to present work internationally. It was from this that I started formulating ideas for 1-54 and consequently we had our first edition in London in 2013, New York in 2015, Marrakesh in 2018 and Paris in 2021.
What goes into the curation of the galleries/artists at 1-54?
For every edition, galleries are asked to submit a proposal. This proposal is looked at by a selection committee that reviews the design, curatorial foundations and gallery intent. Our values and mission for visibility are closely tied to our decision to work with a gallery. Because we are working with artists from historically marginalized areas of the world, it is important to us that galleries we work with recognize this, are working to confront archaic and reductive notions of an “African esthetic” and are responsive to present conditions and the locality of the fair.
How much sales has the fair generated when it was first launched in 2013 compared to today? In light of the very nature of 1-54 – boutique size with a focus on contemporary African artists – do you witness serious collecting at your show, rather than buying just for investment purposes?
Since 2013, the number of sales has risen, and we have seen prices for works rise. Our smaller size allows us to have a close relationship with all our galleries and artists and ensure that we can be adaptable to their needs year after year. It’s very important that collectors do not buy for investment, but rather engage with a work and build relationships with artists and galleries. Our smaller size allows collectors to also take their time at each booth. We also try to encourage engagement as much as possible in our approach by placing emphasis on discussion and knowledge exchange through our fair tours and 1-54 Forum, for example, which is a public program of panels, artist talks, performances and screenings.
How has the contemporary African art scene evolved over the past decade, and what impact has 1-54 had on this art scene worldwide?
Art scenes from across the continent are not only getting more attention internationally, but finally this attention is positive and equitable. This is a result of hard work by individuals, galleries and institutions on the continent driving for inclusion and change for several years now. We are very proud to be supporting them, as we all work towards the same goals.
How do you explain the current strong performance and solid market demand for contemporary African art?
The changes we are seeing are a result of decades of hard work and it’s been a slow change. Prices have risen, but they are still relatively low in comparison to the prices for works made by Western artists and sold in Western spaces. But this is encouraging as the increases we are seeing are sustainable for the market and allow for younger and less financially wealthy collectors to enter the market.
Who are the biggest buyers of contemporary African art today, and what kinds of collectors are you targeting in particular at 1-54?
It is incredibly diverse, which makes sense considering how diverse contemporary creativity on the continent is and how varied the different cultural scenes are. Unlike most art markets, collectors come from no clear age group, but increasingly we are seeing younger collectors. This is primarily because there are still multiple price points at which to enter the market. Likewise, major collectors come from around the world and across the continent. This diversity is healthy for Africa’s contemporary art scenes and the markets, as there is no reliance on or pressure by a single demographic, therefore discouraging purchasing trends and targeted price brackets.
Which categories of contemporary African art are registering the most interest from collectors?
The diversity in work from across the continent means that there are no clear categories or themes. Of course, there are connections that could be made between artists due to shared realities, such as particularly abundant materials, historical socio-political events, popular culture and traditions that may influence process or thematic choices. But we need to discourage the viewing of work within themes or categories, as it imposes limitations that often play into preconceptions and stereotypes that artists from Africa have long been subject to.