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Review: Contemporary African Art Fair 1:54

Maurice Mbikayi's posed photograph (Untitled, 2016) featuring his keyboard dandy suit designs. Image reproduced courtesy of Gallery MOMO.

It's almost tempting to think that 1:54 was deliberately timetabled to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair. Sometimes Frieze can feel a little introspective, offering its audience fine art about fine art, aesthetic objects commenting on aesthetics. If there are any generalisations to be made about 1:54, it's the sense that its art is about people and their lived experience, presenting artistic practices which engage with the world around them.

From the outset, Koyo Kouoh’s curation asserts how 1:54 is necessarily a space for marginalised stories and oppressed voices. Zak Ové’s troupe of sculptures somberly greet guests as they approach the South Wing, harkening back to Ben Johnson’s ‘The Masque of Blackness’, a blackface masquerade-cum-play held at Somerset House in 1605. This act of spatial re-appropriation, though drawing on traumatic chapters of African history, also results in a hint of playful humour, as the enigmatic figures’ gesture of mock surrender seems to undercut the courtyard’s austere eighteenth century splendour. Similarly ambivalent in tone, South African Colbert Mashile’s painting series, ‘Man in the Arena’, comprises of de Chirico-like surrealist assemblages, featuring ominously empty tortoise shells, like those the artist used to find when wandering through the fields by his house. Fragments of Western Classical sculptures assert their overbearing presence, dominating his compositions, whilst a frog, cricket or lizard lurks discreetly in the corner, a symbol of the watchful eye of the artist as the only living element in the painting. Michele Mathison also sought to examine how visual modernist traditions may be altered when intersected with a consideration of race, exhibiting ‘Lost Ground’ (2015), a vast canvas of thick clay-red gypsum impressed with track marks. Mathison’s abstract expressionistic piece recalls both the colonial seizure of the African continent’s surface, and its subsequent organisation into artificial subdivisions: the canvas has been separated into six pieces, imposed like national borders, irrespective of its gypsum formations.

Some artists employed iconoclasm to reimagine the aesthetic value of traditional tribal sculpture, for example, Niyi Olagunju clove his sculptural figures in two and painted white on their biomorphic cross-section, drawing attention to the inherently modern elements latent within Africa’s material culture. Others chose to intelligently refigure cornerstones of the modernist tradition, for example, Alexandra Karakashian’s nod to Rothko in her ‘Oil painting’ (2016), where a strip of white material hangs from the ceiling into a basin of black oil which slowly rises up its surface forming a dark fridge in a natural chromatography process. Religious themes ran through Erich van Hove’s work, as he took the negatives of embossed metal print-outs of a world map and pilled them on top of one another to create a series of apparently abstract shapes, with Allah’s name sunk into a depression at its centre.

Particular to this fourth edition of 1:54 was the intent to confound the boundaries between fine art, fashion and design. "After all, craft is where fine art originated from", commented Kouoh during the opening remarks of the 1:54-specific FORUM talk series, taking place throughout the weekend in conjunction with the fair. For the duration of the fair, the Portico rooms will house cutting-edge re-imaginations of traditional stools, produced by the design firm Toghal. The company’s designers drew from kanga designs to create textiles dancing with lithe female figures. Georgina Maxim’s use of a white nightgown represents another object usually designated to a domestic space. ‘Healing through Stiches’ shows the final product after hours of stitching individual strips of colour onto its surface as a means of processing the memory of its previous owner.

Ekow Eshun delivered the fair’s inaugural lecture, speaking on his exhibition ‘Made you Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity’, which recently closed at the Photographer’s Gallery. He explored how images of flamboyant elegance, such as those by Hassan Hajjaj, who was also featured in 1:54, form a kind of defiant weaponry “of radical personal politics” against both a “white gaze mediated by prejudice, fascination and projections of the imagination” and in the face of expectations of black respectability within diaspora communities. Maurice Mbikayi dons dinner jackets, top hats and shoes made of a mosaic of discarded keyboard keys and spacebars in his series ‘Techno Dandy’, thus reclaiming the detritus of the exploitative technology industry operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photoshoots in which Mkikayi models his own arresting designs physically embody Eshun’s core message about dandyism: it’s not about the fashion items themselves, but the way in which they’re worn, achieving effortless style precisely due to a fierce agency over personal self-expression. Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s vast paintings, ‘False Memories’ and ‘Duty of Memory’, also recall the tech industry’s silent labour force. Mangbetu tribeswomen in traditional dress and headwear are set in a grey landscape, a signifier for their uncertain place in the nation’s history, as the Congolese government refuse to recognise the tribe’s contribution to the nation’s heritage. The women’s jet-black skin is delineated with circuit board patterns, whose constellation-like patterns lend the figures cosmic - almost afrofuturist - undertones, giving their plight a sense of universality.

Many of the artists in 1:54 deploy their artistic practice to challenge the art world in which they operate, and we should see the call for a reconsideration of design’s place in fine art as an extension of this subversion. The Contemporary African Art Fair should be enjoyed in the context of the rich backdrop of FORUM discussions, as Somerset House is once again host to a dynamic exchange of ideas, which is, first and foremost, a celebration of its voices and their creativity.

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