Q&A: Touria El Glaoui of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair

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After two successful editions alongside Frieze London, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair will be making its New York debut this Frieze Week, from May 15 to 17 at Pioneer Works. Though fairly small, with a roster of 16 galleries, the fair promises an exciting selection — including participating artists coming fresh off the Venice Biennale and a full roster of talks and panels with artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Julie Mehretu. We asked the fair’s founder Touria El Glaoui about the motivation behind the expansion and the importance of visibility for African artists.

What inspired this year’s move to New York City?

We kind of doubled everything from the first to second year, and the press often asked us “How many galleries do you have this year, how many artists?” — and we thought that right now, we have an extremely good quality of gallery and an extremely good quality of artist, so instead of growing in the capital where we are already, it might be nice to give the same type of visibility to a new art capital. These artists are still not known and didn’t get visibility in the US. There are a lot of audiences here that don’t travel to Frieze London, so we’re hoping to reach out to this new audience.

Lebohang-Kganye-the-nail-cutter-2014

Why do you think there’s still this lack of visibility for contemporary African artists?

I think the biggest limitation that we’ve seen is that Africa is not easy to access for most people. The fact that there’s no access to contemporary African art means there’s no knowledge, no education when it comes to it. It had until now been something very niche, but what we’ve seen in London with the two editions is that this is appealing now to a larger spectrum of the collectors, who think that they have to include contemporary African art in their collection.

I think it’s a bit of a vicious circle; if you have no access to it, you can’t have curators thinking of even including them in exhibitions. For example, a lot of the first generation of famous contemporary African artists were the ones that participated in this exhibition in Paris called “Magiciens de la terre,” and this exhibition then got Johnny Pigozzi interested. He had this collection in Europe that circulated a lot and gave a lot of visibility to those 20 artists that were part of this initial international exhibition.

We had the chance in our first edition to have the curator Christa Clarke of the Newark Museum at the fair, and she actually discovered two artists at 1:54 London, and now there’s two solo shows at the Newark Museum of those artists. So she’s exactly the typical ambassador of what visibility can do for these artists. Just being in London or in New York for artists that have never left their country can make a huge change in their career.

Abu-Bakarr Mansaray,Return of the Xynomorph, 2013, color pencil and ballpoint pen on paper

Can you think of other past moments, like the Newark Museum example, that encapsulate your goals for the fair?

We always offered in London three nonprofit spaces to galleries from the continent. They sometimes don’t have the money to pay for the space or the logistics to go all the way to London. And we had a very nice example of a gallery from Zimbabwe that we helped do our first edition, and they came back paying for their space the second year. They were happy to go through the whole circuit on their own, and they were very successful.

So we also want to make sure that the art scene continues to develop and have a strong structure locally — for an artist to be an artist in Africa, not having to count on international institutions to give them visibility, to have a pool of collectors locally that could buy their art. So this is what we’re really working really hard on doing right now is having this collector base in Africa sustaining the art. Because it’s one thing to have it here, but it’s very important to have it and make sure it’s properly developing in Africa, so they don’t wake up one day and be like “Oh, we can’t buy our art, it’s too expensive.”

Do you have any of those nonprofit spaces in New York this year?

New York is smaller — it’s only 16 galleries — so we don’t have the space for the nonprofits as well, though hopefully we will one day. But you can come and see them in London! We actually have many more than we’re supposed to — originally, we had three, but now we have six.

Leila Alaoui-Crossings-2013-three channel video installation-6min-Voice Gallery

Have you encountered any stereotypes about African art abroad?

That was part of our success, because I think people had all those ideas in their mind of what they were going to see or what it was about, and I think they were extremely pleasantly surprised. They thought, “Wow, it’s that level, it’s that contemporary — we had no idea that this was coming from Mali.” We have artists that obviously followed very similar academic studies to an American or European artists would have had, then we have some that are only inspired by where they live and use whatever they have on the ground.

I’m going around to fairs quite a lot — to see what I can do, because we’re still growing, trying to get inspired by everything I see. And even for myself, whatever we see at 1:54 is completely different — not in a sense of good quality or not contemporary or not conceptual, it’s just fresher, because they’re not inspired by the same things. They haven’t had to follow a path to be part of a certain art industry yet.

Is the goal to stay in New York — and/or to continue expanding to more locations?

I think the next stop is definitely Africa — I’ve been saying that for a long time. We are trying to find the best model to go to Africa with, because in the end it’s a commercial initiative for the galleries, so we’re analyzing the possibilities of events in Africa that are already attracting a lot of people. We’re trying maybe the Dakar Biennial, which is one of the oldest art events on the continent, or the Marrakech Biennale could be a bit more social and attract European countries to come see.

We want to be permanent like we are in London now, and we are starting with exactly the same concept in New York. So we’re starting small, testing the audience, the location — trying to replicate the same model and see if the recipe works here as well. One thing I’m not really scared about is that I think collectors are curious about everything new, so I think they’ll be excited to see what we have to offer.

— Anneliese Cooper (@DawnDavenport)

(Photos: Touria El Glaoui by Chris Saunders; Vincent Michéa’s “Bintou 2,” 2013; Lebohang Kganye’s “the nail cutter,” 2014; Abu Bakarr Mansaray’s “Return of the Xynomorph,” 2013; Leila Alaoui’s “Crossings,” 2013)