A visit to the (contemporary African) art fair

Olu Amoda, Medium Sunflower II. Art Twenty One, Lagos

It was art-fair week in New York City last May, and while the hordes flocked to Randall’s Island for Frieze New York with its 200-plus galleries, a smaller specialty event, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, set up at Pioneer Works, a converted warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn — the first such event in the United States.

A fair for contemporary African art is still a novelty anywhere. Touria El Glaoui, a former business developer for Cisco Systems and the daughter of a famous Moroccan artist, started 1:54 (a cryptonym for Africa: one continent, 54 countries) in London in 2012. It is now on its third London edition, having grown from 17 galleries to three dozen. For the Brooklyn edition, which El Glaoui considered a trial run, she invited 16 galleries. Of these, six were based in Europe, two in the United States, one in Morocco, and five in South Africa, all places in the art market’s center and semi-periphery.

The last two galleries, however, were Art Twenty One, from Lagos, Nigeria, and Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. They represented the art market’s newest frontier: the economic hub cities of sub-Saharan Africa, where a new dynamism is attracting back from abroad Africans in finance, in technology, and lately in art.

Caline Chagoury

Caline Chagoury, who runs Art Twenty One, and Cécile Fakhoury, of the eponymous gallery, are friends and have much in common. Both are young, around thirty. Each founded her gallery in the last three years. Art Twenty One is a rare Chelsea-style gallery in Nigeria; Cécile Fakhoury is the only one of its kind in French-speaking West Africa. The two women are also part of the region’s Lebanese business community: Chagoury’s father is developing Eko Atlantic City, a planned mini-Dubai in Lagos on land claimed from the ocean; Fakhoury, who is French, is married to the son of prominent Lebanese-Ivorian architect Pierre Fakhoury, the designer of the basilica of Yamoussoukro.

Gérard Quenum at 1:54 New York, installation view

At the New York edition of 1:54, Chagoury showed two artists of mid-level renown. One was the Nigerian sculptor Olu Amoda, whose strong pieces made of metal detritus and found items collide natural and industrial themes. The other was Gérard Quenum, from Bénin, whose big canvases of sparsely applied color rendered ghostly impressions of the bustle of urban activity. Fakhoury showed five artists, including three from Côte d’Ivoire. An installation of small images by the photographer François-Xavier Gbré, taken during and after the demolition, in the name of urban renewal, of an Abidjan informal neighborhood, was stark and tender, full of unexpected pastels. The painter Aboudia’s canvases brimmed with aggressive poetry. The photographer and tech geek Paul Sika, who studied computer science in England, contibuted a lightbox from a 21-piece series that looked like a still from a theater production set into a digital dreamspace. Fakhoury also showed work by Cheikh Ndiaye, a Senegalese painter and installation artist who lives in Europe, and Vincent Michéa, a French painter and collagist based in Senegal.

Installation by François-Xavier Gbré. Image courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury.

This sampler was fairly representative of the fair overall: its combined roster of 66 artists featured few international celebrities (no El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, or Wangechi Mutu, for instance), but rather a mix of the reasonably well-known and the “emerging,” with the odd William Kentridge linocut (David Krut Projects, Johannesburg) or Seydou Keïta photograph (Magnin-A, Paris) thrown in. Almost all of them, however, were underpriced relative to their experience and the quality of their work, as André Magnin explained. Magnin, who spent many years as the curator for the famous private mega-collection of African art of French industrial heir Jean Pigozzi, before opening his own gallery, had the fair’s most lavish booth, with 17 artists. He said that when work by a rising American or European artist garners a sale price of $200,000, a piece by an African peer at a similar level of achievement might sell for $60,000.

This observation revealed a principal reason to hold an “African” fair in the first place. The marginalization of African artists has been so dire that it takes an intervention — an assertion of collective scale and strength — to erode it in ways that benefit more than just an anointed few. “I’ve always thought it a bit stupid to put African art in its own bubble,” Magnin said, “but at the big fairs, people walk through without seeing it. For the moment, it’s good to get together. Eventually, it should merge into the world market.”

One reason why 1:54 came to New York is that the United States is the place where this merging has at least begun — where lines between Africa and not-Africa undergo some productive blurring. Several gallerists said that American buyers will pay more than Europeans do for work by African artists, and that they are, in some ways, more curious as well. It helps, of course, that a number or these buyers are African-Americans, children of African immigrants, or African expats working on Wall Street.

“The U.S. reacts a bit faster,” said Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, who moved from Paris to Seattle and opened Mariane Ibrahim Gallery three years ago. “It’s so political in Europe. America has more flexibility. More museums are private, and people really want to see African art.” It may have been coincidence, but Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s booth was one of the fair’s edgiest. It included feminist work from Brooklyn-based ruby onyinyechi amanze, and photo-based works by Fabrice Monteiro (who is Béninois-Belgian and lives in Senegal) that interrogated colonial historiography.

ruby onyinyechi amanze, “that day we almost exploded” (Mariane Ibrahim Gallery)

The most promising site to attack the distortions that underprice African contemporary art and narrow its themes is Africa itself. This is where Chagoury and Fakhoury come in — along with their new gallerist peers in Ghana, Kenya, and elsewhere. Lagos, a city of high chaos and vast wealth, is primed to become an art hub and picking up speed in that direction: it has new galleries, non-profit spaces, and an international photo festival. Nigerian collectors are buying, though Chagoury said they need to become more open to non-Nigerian artists. Some local banks are starting collections. And as new venues open, Chagoury said that artists are engaging with gallery space with greater intention and imagination.

In Côte d’Ivoire, where an economic boom is under way, things are more embryonic but point in the same direction. “There’s money in Abidjan,” said Fakhoury, whose buyers are a mix of expats and an emerging local set, mostly young Ivorian professionals who worked overseas and moved back. “I’m not trying to bluff anyone,” she added. “My biggest sale of a single piece so far has been €30,000. So I don’t want to claim there’s a big buzz. Things happen slowly. But I’m young too, so I’m in no rush.”

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