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1:54 African Art Fair
Somerset House , London

It was the first time I'd visited and it was a breath of fresh air to take in such exquisite art. I met artists, curators and gallery owners from 27 galleries from countries such as Kenya, Benin, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe as well as European and American galleries. Apprehending the obviously diverse output of over 100 established and emerging African artists evoked a wide range of emotions, a far cry from the predictability of Frieze. But this experience was most certainly not just another "Shock of the New", although I do confess to sheer delight at the hand worked bead portraits and sculptures of well-established artists Joseph-Francis Sumegne and Herve Yamguen at doual'art and the elongated photographic portraits created by Muslim feminist artist Maimouna Guerresi were phenomenal.

From the two chic Italian collectors I met, there to make purchases on behalf of Luciano Benetton's collection of African Art, to a shared cup of coffee with one of Britain's most established African sculptors Sokari Douglas Camp, I found that 1:54 is not just a great networking opportunity but an invaluable educational experience. The wealth of art on show was illuminated by a critical and insightful daily programme of talks, lectures, film screenings and panel discussions curated by Koyo Kouoh. These were presented by international curators such as Simon Njami, as well as artists and critics presiding over the burgeoning world of African art.

Over the four days I was to gradually learn that the notion of Africa is not as reliably fixed as I had first imagined and one of the key themes that unfolded was “What is Africa?” Kouoh’s opening address discussed how on one hand, the artworks ought to be legitimised as more than just “African” yet on the other, there is something to be gained by emphasising and problematising their roots. For despite globalisation and the instantaneity of the internet, Africa still struggles mightily with the legacy of colonisation and is a reminder that we in Europe, still have far to go. Sammy Baloji and other participating artists, despite having gallery representation in Paris had not been granted a visa.

Another key theme was how the movers and shakers in African art might develop new frameworks of critique, which will improve on existing conservative Westernized processes of art history such as canonisation. Successful individual artists are often affiliated to communities of artists and have usually relied on unnamed sources of labour. As a case in point, one of the artists exhibiting in 1:54 - who is also shows with Londonart - is Wayne Barker. In the catalogue “Super boring”, Baylon Sandri states that Barker hails from the late eighties and is a notorious figure in the Protest Art movement in South Africa. Like Willie Bester and Jane Alexander, he is one of South Africa's most well - known artists who began as resistance artists.

Black artist Willie Bester uses rubbish, building up surfaces into relief and then paints the surface with oil paint, picturing important Black South African figures and aspects important to his township community. Jane Alexander is another artist who has dealt with the atrocities of apartheid, but like Barker, works from a white perspective. She focuses on the unhealthy society that continues in post-apartheid South Africa. Barker has tried to raise the profile of South African artists, describing them as residing at “the bottom of the world.” In 2004, he said, “Where do I come from because I am white? But I am African. So [my work] deals with universal issues. The inspiration comes from a country that is very fucked up, because the morality of the country is weird.”

Simon Njami, in “Wayne Barker: The Artists as Naked Subject” sees Barker as having successfully addressed “the question of colour” and confronted those boundaries to call their bluff. He tells how at the exhibition “Fin de Siecle” in Nantes, 1997, Barker; “bored by the exoticism and clichés of the show selected from Africa, spontaneously took off his clothes and covered his body with chocolate mousse” then sat down to play piano whilst his girlfriend licked it off. This Situationist action was born of the same theme which still remains in question, “What is Africa?” 1:54 is an important stop on any transnational art tour and I will be taking a closer look in forthcoming articles on Londonart at other aspects and issues raised by this important nexus of international, critical perspectives.

Jenny Jones

image1: Romuald Hazoumè, Chantou, 2013. Found objects, 43 x 31 x 26 cm. Photo Jonathan Greet, image courtesy October Gallery London

image 2: Maimouna Guerresi. Mohamed and Daughters, 2009, 100x35 cm, Courtesy of M I A Gallery

image 3: Maimouna Guerresi. Surprise. 2010.100x63cm. Courtesy of M I A Gallery.

image 4: SAMMY BALOJI Kolwezi 7, Shituru. 2011. 80cm x 252,96cm