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How Has the Global Conversation on African Art Changed?

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1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair celebrates its fifth anniversary in New York from 3-5 May. Ahead of the event, Ayofemi Kirby explores how the conversation around African art has changed

From 3-5 May 2019, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair celebrates its fifth anniversary in New York. But how has the fair helped to evolve representations of African art, and conversations around artists of African descent?

Today, 1-54 (one continent, 54 countries), remains the only global art fair of its kind, with editions in London, New York and Marrakech dedicated to contemporary works by artists from Africa and the African diaspora. Since its foundation in 2013, it has provided a global platform for hundreds of artists of African descent, represented by galleries from around the world.

There is little doubt that 1-54 has contributed to the art market’s decision to embrace African art and listen to what artists of the African diaspora have to say through their work – a phenomenon that has occurred only in the last decade. In April, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga (Democratic Republic of Congo), featured at 1-54 London in 2015, sold for £81,250 in Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art auction in London, soaring above its estimate of £25,000-35,000.

At the same auction, the late photography pioneer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s (Nigeria) work broke two of his sales records. Ojeikere, known for his gripping portraits of hairstyles in his home country, has been featured at 1-54 since 2013. 1-54 is elevating both African artists’ voices and their value.

‘Discussing African art is no longer a trend, it’s becoming a standard’ – Toria El Glaoui, Founding Director, 1-54

The expansion of 1-54 is indicative of shifting attitudes to African art – now at the centre of the art world, after decades on its perimeter. The fair launched its Marrakech edition in February 2018, while London celebrated its sixth edition from 3-6 October 2018. In May, after four years in Red Hook, Brooklyn, 1-54 will be held at Industria in Manhattan’s West Village, claiming residence among New York’s most established arts venues.

‘Discussing African art is no longer a trend, it’s becoming a standard,’ explains 1-54’s Founding Director Touria El Glaoui. ‘Artists have always challenged us to explore how our interconnected histories influence and impact our present. They also inspire us to imagine new futures. For Africa and African art, 1-54 is allowing artists of African descent to reclaim and reshape those narratives, offering a place on three continents where new perspectives and stories have the space to be seen, heard, and told.’

Highlights of this year’s New York edition include: Nirit Takele (Ethiopia/Israel), whose work is a part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection; multidisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome (New York City/New Orleans) whose practice is influenced by advertising, Black and Queer culture; and Lawrence Lemaoana (South Africa) whose explores the relationship between the people of South Africa and the media – among many other artists whose places of birth and current homes span corners of the continent and of the world.

Special projects, and a programme entitled 1-54 FORUM, ensure that the fair continues to build conversation around African art and the artists is presents, with discussions aimed at collectors,  cultural consumers and first time attendees alike. Entitled Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, May’s 1-54 FORUM is curated by Black Chalk and Co., an artist collective founded by Zimbabwean artists Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu. Conversations include Black Aesthetics: Inscribing Tradition into the Future and Without A Name: On Living and Working Between Spaces.

Galleries and artists invited to participate in 1-54 feature works that highlight the breadth, depth, and diversity of African perspectives and creative expression. The fair’s variety is as heterogeneous as the languages, cultures, and geographies found on the continent and within the vast range of its diasporan reach. As it continues to expand, 1-54 is advancing its global movement of those committed to supporting African art and amplifying its artists; the fair serves as a convener for those interested in being a part.

1-54 New York will take place at Industria in Manhattan from May 3 – 5, 2019. For more information about the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, visit 1-54.com.

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