RA Projects to design space for 1:54 NY 2015

RA Projects, award-winning London-based architecture and design studio, will design the lobby and exhibition spaces for the New York debut of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

RA Projects’ design will integrate the 1:54 fair’s exhibition space into the reclaimed iron works factory that houses Pioneer Works, as well as transform the building’s lobby to accommodate a cafe and areas for reception and special events. These different spaces will be defined by sculptural interventions in rich colors that create contrasting but sensitive temporary additions to the building’s existing brick structure.

RA Projects previously designed the second edition of 1:54 in London, which was held at the historic Somerset House from October 16–19, 2014.

RA Projects was established in 2009 by architect Rashid Ali. Since its inception, the studio has worked on an array of projects, ranging in use and scale from an architecture and art installations to planning strategies. Recent projects include residential and boutique retail projects in the UK and cultural strategies in Africa and Latin America. RA Projects has been widely recognized for their building projects as well as research output, including being nominated for the prestigious Young Architect of the Year Award in 2008 and 2011.

Birsel + Seck’s Taboo Stools and Tables in 1:54 Salon

Birsel + Seck, award-winning New York-based design and innovation studio, will furnish the lounge at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair with its Taboo series of stools and tables.

Made in Dakar, Senegal, the Taboo series is made from 80% recycled garbage bags and plastic bottles. The shape of the Taboo furniture references the daily habits of many people in Western African, where it is common practice to sit on stools around lows table during meals. Dependent on the color of the recycled plastic, the stools and tables come in a variety of colors, including greens, blues, and corals. The Taboo pieces come from MoMA PS1 where they were used in the café.

Birsel + Seck was founded in 2003 by designers Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck. Since its inception, the studio has achieved innovative solutions across the office, home, bath, retail, and automotive sectors. Projects include designing the highly successful Resolve Storage System for Herman Miller and the Giada de Laurentiis Kitchen Collection for Target, as well as designing Hewlett-Packard’s executive lobby in Palo Alto. Placing an emphasis on simplicity, empathy, and sustainability, Birsel + Seck has received numerous awards including the IDEA Gold and ID Magazine Excellence Awards. The studio’s work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Cooper Hewitt National.

1:54 NY 2015 Exhibitors and Artists Announced

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, a leading transnational platform dedicated to promoting African and Africa related art practices and projects, will make its New York debut on May 15-17, 2015, with a VIP preview on Thursday, May 14. The fair will take place at Pioneer Works Center for Art + Innovation in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and will be designed by RA Projects, award-winning London-based architecture and design studio.

Dandelia #1, 2012. Photographic print mounted on light box, edition of 2. 60 x 90 cm / 23.62 x 35.43 in. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury
Dandelia #1, 2012. Photographic print mounted on light box, edition of 2. 60 x 90 cm / 23.62 x 35.43 in. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury

A reference to fifty-four countries that constitute the African continent, the title of 1:54 establishes the parameters of the fair’s ethos: as a platform that strives to represent multiplicity and showcase the diversity of contemporary African art and cultural production on an international stage. The New York edition will present a wide range of artistic voices including established and celebrated artists who have paved the way for future artistic generations, and a fast-growing number of promising emerging talent. Spanning several generations and diverse mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography and installation, the selection includes works by Edson Chagas, star of the Angolan Pavilion – awarded the prestigious accolade for Best National Participation at the 55th Venice Biennale; Prix Pictet shortlist photographer Sammy Baloji; Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté; Tunisian artist and researcher Nidhal Chamekh; Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama; and artist Lavar Munroe from Bahamas; many of which have been selected for presentation at this year’s 56th Venice Biennale. New York art-goers will likely recognize numerous artists establishing a global presence, such as Aboudia and Boris Nzebo from Jack Bell Gallery (London), Maïmouna Guerresi and ruby onyinyechi amanze from Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Seattle), and Joël Andrianomearisoa from Primo Marella Gallery (Milan).

For the second consecutive year, Artsy is the official online partner of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Collectors and art enthusiasts can explore 1:54 NY, inquire on works for sale, and view special features such as highlights selected by art-world insiders on Artsy.net and the Artsy iPhone app.

1:54 NY Opening Hours:
Friday, May 15: 12-8 pm
Saturday, May: 16 12-8 pm
Sunday, May 17: 12-6 pm

Day pass: $10
Students: $5

Participating galleries

A Palazzo Gallery, Brescia
Afronova, Johannesburg
Art Twenty One, Lagos
ARTCO Gallery, Aachen
Axis Gallery, New York
Bennett Contemporary, Cape Town
CIRCA Gallery, Johannesburg
David Krut Projects, Johannesburg
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan
Jack Bell Gallery, London
Magnin-A, Paris
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle
NOMAD Gallery, Brussels
Primo Marella Gallery, Milan
SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
VOICE Gallery, Marrakech

1:54 NY 2015 FORUM Programme Announced

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair hosts FORUM, an extensive programme of artist talks, panel discussions and lectures during its New York debut 15–16 May 2015. Forum will be held at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn alongside the fair 15–17 May.

Curated by Koyo Kouoh, Artistic Director of RAW Material Company, FORUM aims to stimulate discussion and debate with some of the art world’s most inspirational players. The New York iteration looks to reexamine present and future notions of 21st century African diasporic identities as traversed, negotiated and performed in the arenas of intellectual, cultural and artistic practices. A special focus will be given to important voices active in these fields across the last 35 years.

Admission to FORUM events are free with any ticket to 1:54 NY, Frieze NY, or a VIP Pass (1:54/Frieze), but guests must reserve their seats in advance due to a limited capacity.

RSVP for 1:54 FORUM New York

1:54 Crosses the Pond — Pioneer Works, Brooklyn

Following the 2014 edition of 1:54 in London, Europe’s leading art fair focusing on contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora, we are delighted to announce the first ‘1:54 Pop-Up’ in New York City.

1:54 NY will be held at Pioneer Works Center for Art + Innovation to coincide with Frieze New York, across the 15 – 17 May 2015. Founded by artist Dustin Yellin in 2012, Pioneer Works is situated within a 19th century factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The pop-up fair will take place in the spectacular Main Hall and will include several smaller enclosed exhibition spaces that will host 1:54 Forum and special projects.

An innovative centre dedicated to the nurturing and showcasing of art, Pioneer Works is an outstanding industrial building in the vibrant and creative neighbourhood of Brooklyn. We strongly believe that Pioneer Works will further contribute to the unique identity of 1:54, and prove highly engaging for art collectors, curators, directors, art professionals, artists, students, and the wider public.

Designing 1:54 NY will be RA Projects, the award-winning London based architecture and design studio established in 2009 by Rashid Ali. RA Projects were the official studio to redesign the second edition of 1:54 in October 2014 at Somerset House, London.

Led by Koyo Kouoh, 1:54 NY Forum will, as usual, comprise of a full programme of talks and panel discussions to explore critical topics pertinent to contemporary African art today. Parallel to the fair and forum, 1:54 NY Public Programme will offer a wide range of social events and engagements — more details to be announced shortly.

Exhibitor’s interview: Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Gallery director

This is the last of a series of interviews with three of this year’s exhibiting galleries, conducted by Emma Wingfield, a freelance art researcher and writer, with a background in African Art based in NYC. The interviews aim to discuss the galleries themselves, their views on their local and global Contemporary African Art markets, and their artists/involvement with 1:54.

Here we have Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Director Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle, USA.

Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt founded M.I.A Gallery in 2012. The name M.I.A optimizes the gallery’s character; of being on a mission; moving through unchartered territory; exhibiting art movements which were relatively absent from the international art market map. The gallery is both Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s and her artist’s identities, working together. Originally from Somalia and having lived on three different continents (Africa, Europe, and North America) her interest in emerging Contemporary Art has been heavily influenced by her experiences and observations of the world around her. With a background in media communications and advertising, she has worked in a variety of different international sectors. In the early 2000’s she played a vital role in attaining UNESCO recognition of Somalian rock art and cave paintings as an important cultural monument, desperately in need of conservation and protection. Although the project was put on hold as political tensions in Somalia intensified, Ibrahim-Lenhardt is adamant about one day returning to the site and increasing the knowledge and local interaction with some of the world’s oldest forms of art. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s ability to attract international focus to an under-represented art form, which has for the most part been forgotten or ignored by the international art community is a fitting compliment to her current venture at M.I.A.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt began her commercial art career as a collector, buying pieces of art from artists she found engaging and interesting, all the while developing close relationships with likeminded galleries and curators. Timing was crucial. Ibrahim-Lenhardt recognized a gap in the art market, particularly in the United States. Very few galleries were working with emerging artists, especially artists with similar backgrounds to hers and working with issues she felt were important. However, Ibrahim-Lenhardt also quickly recognized that the art market was on the verge of a shift, and change was steadily developing within the Contemporary African Art market. Therefore, M.I.A was created with an aim to highlight emerging artists and to utilize different spaces/movements for people who wanted to see the art she was interested in. In other words a space of dialogue and a place to promote African artists.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s decision to focus on emerging artists was inspired by her interest in the artists themselves and the connections among herself, the artists, and the gallery. In many ways, the gallery is also “emerging” within the United States art market. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s definition of “emerging” is unusual. She argues, that in many respects, even “established” Contemporary African artists are still, in a way, “emerging”. This does not describe the level of work or the complexity of the issues being dealt with, but instead the level of establishment within the art market.

By working together with her artists, Ibrahim-Lenhardt gets to be apart of their development, in order to build a better understanding of their work. She has carefully nurtured relationships with these artists in order to create an ongoing dialogue which is visible in the exhibitions she produces.

©SGDL_1-54 1121
© Sébastien Gracco de Lay

“The ability to communicate with an artist and share their vision is an invaluable part of creating a successful commercial gallery, especially one with a focus on art which may not be considered mainstream. The energy these artists have is so inspiring. There is this kind of blurred line between a gallery curator and the artists. We are all in this profession, we’re in the same boat.”

— Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt

©SGDL_1-54 1123
© Sébastien Gracco de Lay

Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s interpretation of contemporary reception of African Art comes from a unique perspective. Being both Somalian and French and currently living in the United States, she has the ability to view the contemporary African Art market from both a global and local perspective. M.I.A’s clients come from all over the world, proving that interest in contemporary African Art is wide spread and steadily gaining more and more attention. With the aid of technology, marketing African artist has become easier. Geographic boundaries are no longer an issue. Art can easily travel to and from Africa. The artists can stay and work in the place that inspires them while the galleries provide the vital infrastructure from which their art can be exhibited on a global platform. Nonetheless, M.I.A gallery does not exclusively exhibit African artists. Ibrahim-Lenhardt expanded her gallery’s focus because both she and her artists did not want to be put in a box where they were only exhibiting alongside other African Artists or were viewed as an assimilation of what African Art should be.

From a local, American, perspective, although Contemporary African Art’s polarity is intensifying, there still aren’t many commercial galleries that are directly involved. There are a few in major city hubs like New York and San Francisco, however out of those galleries few have an interest in really working to extract new artists and work from the African continent and Diaspora. As a gallery dedicated to just that, M.I.A has quickly gained attention from curators and larger public museums globally, a collaboration Ibrahim-Lenhardt describes as invaluable. Similar to Primo Marella Gallery, Ibrahim-Lenhardt adds that the people who have direct access to works of art are the commercial galleries and collectors. The galleries provide an invaluable service to the larger public institutions by being the link between collectors/artists and such museums.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt thinks that major stimuli for continued interest in Contemporary African Art are due to “local” communities actively wanting to see the art. If the pressure from the local communities to see emerging art is low, then larger institutions wont exhibit it. The recent surge in interest, according to Ibrahim-Lenhardt, has been due to the increased interest in Contemporary African Art progressing form an overarching global Diasporic focus to include more localized interests. Although still dispersed, hints of this growth can be seen through the introduction of major exhibitions in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, and next summer, at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). This is something Ibrahim-Lenhardt argues will change drastically in the coming years. She predicts in two to three years time, more exhibitions will be readily available, increasing the visibility of African Art. For example, the exhibition set to show at the SAM next summer incorporates traditional African Art that is contemporary and relatively unseen in the global Diaspora.

For Ibrahim-Lenhardt, 1:54 plays a vital role in the presentation of Contemporary African Art. Upon hearing about the fair in 2013, Ibrahim-Lenhardt immediately new that she wanted to be apart of it for a multitude of reasons; both personal and practical. For Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Somerset House has an important and symbolic place in her heart. It conjures up wonderful memories of time spent living in London as well as a valuable platform for art. She is extremely proud of the fact that a Contemporary African Art fair is being presented in such a central location. London is an already a well established art locale within the international market. Furthermore, 1:54’s environment, as an art fair with a specific purpose is unlike any other international art fair M.I.A participates in. The variety of galleries that exhibit and the art being presented is of outstanding quality. Ibrahim-Lenhardt adds, the interaction between the different galleries feels more collaborative than competitive. It is more welcoming and educational. It stimulates discussions and broadens views on Contemporary Art untouched by many other art fairs.

This year’s 1:54, Ibrahim-Lenhardt is bringing five artists; Soly Cissé, Bruce Clarke, Patrizia Maïmouna Guerresi, Fabrice Monteiro, Jean-Claude Moschetti. These artist all work with a similar central complex theme: Who is African and who is not. For example, Ibrahim-Lenhardt describes herself as French and African. She argues that because she is African, she can also get away with being French and vice versa. This is not so easy for someone with an Italian background, its one or the other. For Ibrahim-Lenhardt we are all African in someway, and it is this central question that her selected five artists, as African artists, are engaging with in their work. Their work involves Africa on Africa. Bruce Clarke was considered one of the first in the wave of internationally recognized South African artists dealing with apartheid in the late 80’s and 90’s. Guerresi, according to Ibrahim-Lenhardt, just embodies the African spirit. Working predominantly in Senegal, Guerresi works have predominantly focused on empowering women and breaking through cultural, political, and psychological boarders in order to appreciate aspects of shared humanity. Monteiro has a background in photo-journalism, which is heavily present in his work. Having strong Belgian and Beninese backgrounds, his work carries an air of multiculturalism and an engaging hybrid of aesthetics: mixing past with present, animism and modern society, combinations not seen anywhere else in Africa today. Monteiro’s work also has a reflectiveness about it. He does not present a single dull image of Africa, but instead, exhibits multiple possible narratives on “Africa” today. In further contrast, Moschetti’s work deals with West African secret societies. Having been initiated into many of these different societies, Moschetti provides a unique opportunity to explore a very private cultural system. He is extremely knowledgeable about these communities and his images reflect the idea of living in two different worlds, the living and the dead.

This is M.I.A’s second year at 1:54. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s exhibition plan revolves around notions of movement and motions of the human body. The selected pieces from the above artists reflect a continuous attempt to capture such movement. The present in an instant, once taken immediately becomes the past. Monteiro’s movement concerns the contemporary African body as an extension of the environment they are in. For Clark, movement is in the form of a political body, aroused, even at times enraged, opposed to a spiritual elevation of a body presented in Moschetti or Guerresi work. A sculpture by Guerresi, a human body that has been condensed, and completely closed up into itself, forms the center piece of Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s exhibition. Is it reflective, closed off? The sculpture’s beauty is in its vulnerability, a theme intrinsic to all human beings, African or not.

Interview conducted by Emma Wingfield.

Exhibitor’s interview: Elena Micheletti, Gallery Manager Primo Marella Gallery

This is the second of a series of interviews with three of this year’s exhibiting galleries, conducted by Emma Wingfield, a freelance art researcher and writer, with a background in African Art based in NYC. The interviews aim to discuss the galleries themselves, their views on their local and global Contemporary African Art markets, and their artists/involvement with 1:54.

Here we have Elena Micheletti, Gallery Manager Primo Marella Gallery in Milan, Italy.


Primo Marella Gallery has played a pivotal role in bringing the work of international artists into the European Art market. The gallery began with a focus on Asian Art at a time when contemporary Asian Art was relatively un-represented in the international art market. Primo Marella solidified their identity as an international art gallery committed to working with emerging artists who are based in the “emerging” countries of their origin. Micheletti describes “emerging” countries as areas where there is a clear lack of focus on a country’s culture objects and art while the local/international response to its economic identity is growing. For example, in China, there were relatively no commercial art galleries or other artistic platforms through which contemporary artists could exhibit their work. For Primo Marella and their collectors, the art being created by artists coming from China offered a “new language” and a fresh aesthetic. The challenge now was how to successfully exhibit these artists to the gallery’s local European Art market, dominated by modernist and Euro/American Contemporary Art. Micheletti argues that this is where the gallery’s collectors have played a vital role. Primo Marella works closely with collectors globally, in order to cultivate a unique network, both locally and internationally between collector and artist. The clients that seek out Primo Marella Gallery are interested in seeing “new languages” and to engage with artist and society.

This method is applicable to contemporary African Art. When contemporary Asian Art became mainstream (with the introduction of local art galleries) as quickly as it appeared on the international art market, Primo Marella Gallery, together with their collectors, wanted to spread their focus in an attempt to continue working with emerging artists. Africa was an obvious choice. Micheletti argues that at the time, many African countries were still “developing” infrastructure to work with the artistic sectors of their societies. For many countries, this is not high on their agenda, as other political issues muddle movement forward. Although this is changing, many African countries “do not have galleries, museums, or a network of collectors” through which art can be presented. However, the international community is reacting strongly to the art being created as new and engaging, a fresh “language”, offering a different perspective to other forms of contemporary Art on the market today.

Primo Marella Gallery has built networks of artists, collectors, and other art professions to interact with African Art on a local and international level. Beginning with the gallery’s pre-existing collectors (their local network), Micheletti and the rest of the gallery have carefully cultivated relationships with the African Art and artists they represent. They also work closely with specific African countries and artists (their external network), building an archive of local contacts; art writers, curators, artists, and other art professionals. Their first African Art exhibitions was a project called “Africa, Assume Art Position!”, which exhibited 16 artists from 11 countries as an attempt to see how their local and external networks would react. Although the gallery has come a long way since this exhibition in 2010, by exhibiting contemporary African artists in a major Italian city, Prime Marella Gallery helped to start a dialogue and market for such art in the Europe.

© Sébastien Gracco de Lay
© Sébastien Gracco de Lay

Micheletti argues that exhibiting contemporary African Art in Europe still presents a huge challenge. For example, many criticisms of art galleries, fairs, and exhibitions the world over, are the assumed “assimilation” of exhibiting African Art as representative of a single country. The African continent is not a cohesive group of countries. It is a continent with arbitrarily placed boundaries, many of which are creations of colonialism. The galleries are then faced with the question of, how does one present a group of artists with such varied backgrounds and histories? How do you adequately present an artist from North Africa with an artist from South Africa? For Micheletti, the answer is not so simple, but Primo Marella Gallery does keep this issue in mind when putting together exhibitions. They purposefully represent a handful of carefully selected African Artists in order to try and keep their identities as self defined as possible. Primo Marella gallery is not solely an African Art gallery. They are interested in emerging artists coming form emerging territories. This way, as Micheletti states, the individual artists retain their own artistic expressions as reflections of their identity and history, rather than as part of a whole continent.

In today’s global art market, attendance at commercial art galleries is rapidly declining. Micheletti states that there is no longer a need for collectors and clients to physically visit gallery spaces in order to buy art. It is an international market, where an increasing number of sales are handled online. This means, public exhibitions and art-fairs, like 1:54, are incredibly important, especially for increasing Contemporary African Art’s reach. Art-fairs and public exhibitions have an ability to present African Art on a global stage. They also provide a platform for collaboration between private galleries and collectors/public museums, which Micheletti describes as an invaluable connection. Many museums don’t have access to a variety of work, and rely on loans from private collectors for their exhibitions.

This year at 1:54, Primo Marella Gallery will present a series of brand new works by a group of both established and emerging artists from Africa. The artists they will be exhibiting, although drastically different in aesthetic, all engage with interesting contemporary issues, directly affecting their histories. These artists are: Abdoulaye Konaté, Jöel Andrianomeariso, Nidhal Chamekh, Cameron Platter, Soly Cissé, and Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo. The exhibition aims to showcase “the scope of artistic production in Africa today” rather than attempting to present these artists as part of an assimilated group. The art and artists are discussing issues effecting the societies they live in, and articulating them through a visual language which is solely their own. Instead of continuing the similar themes which manifest themselves in a different form, these artists create a dialogue that can only be produced by the juxtaposition of the works beside one another and the promise that if a different work was there, a different dialogue would ensue.

Interview conducted by Emma Wingfield.

Exhibitor’s interview: Ashleigh McLean, Gallery Curator WHATIFTHEWORLD

As the wave of interest in African Art continues, the second edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair runs alongside a host of other events which dominate London’s October art scene. From 16–19 October, 1:54 showcases 27 international galleries, 11 from Africa, at Somerset House. Over the past few years, the market for African Art has steadily grown and been nurtured by the introduction of art fairs, exhibitions, and international galleries/museums geared towards both traditional and Contemporary African Art. 1:54’s purpose as a platform for galleries, artists, and curators to promote the reception of African Art as a global interest is just one articulation of its current excitement.

Over the next few days, we will be posting a series of interviews with three of this year’s exhibiting galleries, conducted by Emma Wingfield, a freelance art researcher and writer, with a background in African Art based in NYC. The interviews aim to discuss the galleries themselves, their views on their local and global Contemporary African Art markets, and their artists/involvement with 1:54.

First up we have Ashleigh McLean, Gallery Curator WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town, South Africa.


Whatiftheworld gallery started at a time when very few galleries were looking at artists just finishing their studies at universities and/or self taught. Although hardly an issue which solely plagues Contemporary African Art, it is nonetheless a serious issue. As the gap widened between these artists and what much of the global art market would term established/recognized artists within a South African context, the need for a new platform grew. Ashleigh McLean began her curatorial career by staging installations and interactive art pieces as part of small scale urban interventions. She optimized this demographic of artist looking for exhibition space. She studied formally at the University of Cape town and following graduation began creating her own shows, in pop up spaces, in an attempt to create an ideal exhibition environment for herself, the people she graduated with, and others in a similar state of limbo. Although McLean no longer creates her own art, she still very much views her work at Whatiftheworld as art. Many galleries schedule shows and leave the details to the artist to create with very little support. McLean and Whatiftheworld “work closely with their artists whenever possible”, creating exchange, as the exhibition develops. For an artist, working in a studio can be isolating. Whatiftheworld offers a solid foundation and sounding board.

Whatiftheworld was founded in 2008 in Woodstock, South Africa. Sitting on the outskirts of Cape Town, Whatiftheworld’s location easily leans itself to the promotion of South African artists who have been underpinned by overarching global contemporary art movements. The gallery’s goal was to take younger artists from South Africa, who were just starting out and create a professional gallery environment to present their work. The gallery would not only offer a physical space to exhibit, but would also nurture and provide the valuable infrastructure to support artistic professional development. Whatiftheworld, a completely self-funded independent body, can provide a platform for the appreciation of multi-disciplinary aesthetics and a creative environment for those artists thrive in. They were also able to focus on the art they found engaging, by balancing easily sellable items such as drawings and paintings, with things not necessarily seen as massive money makers (performance and urban engagement type projects). This multi-disciplinary approach is emphasized in their choice of gallery name. Whatiftheworld was inspired by the many projects going on in the gallery space. Playful, yet serious, it is a proposition that is heavily utilized within the gallery context.

Whatiftheworld is located in the predominantly immigrant community of Woodstock, in a synagogue that was decommissioned in 1980 following the departure of the Jewish community. Today, the primarily Muslim area hosts a plethora of arts studios, independent young businesses, designers, and light industry. Woodstock was passed over by the Group Areas Act during apartheid, and has therefore retained its raw, gritty character. Now considered a local art hub, Whatiftheworld was the first gallery to move into the area. Its location creates an interesting social crossover between the local community and the gallery’s clientele. The gallery brings in people/collectors who would not necessarily frequent this area. While no one living in Woodstock is currently buying art, they are interacting with it, a connection Whatiftheworld continues to cultivate. According to McLean, this is indicative of South African society. The very rich and very poor living side by side, brushing up against one another. She states, “In today’s secular society, art galleries have become the “new” religious space”, a mutual place of worship by anyone from any background.

The huge increase in interest in Contemporary African Art, according to McLean is not something temporary, like the bubble within Asian Art. It continues to sustain interest due to its integrative processes. It is not just an exotic interest. McLean argues that public exhibitions have been vital in exposing the work to and gaining interest from the international art community. She said that public exhibitions have proved to be great opportunities to create collaborative relationships with other galleries, exposing their artists to new communities and building extensive art networks. McLean also argues that Biennales are also incredibly important, having the ability to shift career paths of individual artists. These exhibitions show African Art for what it is and help to educate people on how to talk about the art. For McLean, performance art has been hugely important in nurturing the recognition of African Art. It is interesting and engaging, which only further identifies African Art as not only high quality in physical appearance, but strongly representative of complex ideas.

The local art market in South Africa is rapidly growing, and has spread to other countries on the Continent. More and more galleries are turning up in South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana. Formal art institutions are also being established for teaching art making, encouraging intellectual critical thinking, and engagement with art. African collectors from the continent are also starting to buy more and more art. As this continues to grow, so will the Contemporary African Art market.

Next year, South Africa will be getting its first Contemporary Art museum in the form of a science museum in Cape Town. McLean argues that this will dramatically shift reception of African Art in its local context. It will change the amount of people traveling to South Africa specifically for art. It will change the way artists work; the idea of producing work for museum scale spaces is very different from working within a more domestic environment created in a gallery context. Museums are spaces for critical dialogue and trans-national conversations. McLean argues that there is so much more to come out of Africa. African art is stronger because the environment it is produced in can be less structured or compartmentalized by controlled institutions.

The collecting scene in South Africa is small, but strong. McLean estimates around 30-45 serious collectors living in South Africa who are regularly buying Contemporary African Art. The gallery tries to break through the conservative outlook which plagues many South African buyers. At auction, there is no shortage of people willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on master painters from South Africa. McLean states that the contemporary art market is not there yet, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t gaining traction. This is why art fairs like 1:54 are so important. As a younger gallery, working towards creating and cultivating a younger generation of collectors, these public and international art fairs offer opportunity to cultivate such relationships. McLean estimates around 60% of their business comes from the US and Europe. Developing their international Contemporary African Art collectors is just as important as developing the local.


This is Whatiftheworld’s first year exhibiting at 1:54. McLean and the Whatiftheworld gallery were eager to see how the first edition of 1:54 panned out. The art market is highly competitive and participating in international art fairs is a huge financial commitment. However, as McLean states, 1:54 is unique in that it not only presents a stage for Contemporary African Art unlike anywhere else in the world, but it also caught the attention of collectors who fly to London specifically for the fair. The fair is not without criticisms, principally concerning the ghettoization of contemporary African Art away from the rest of the contemporary art genre. Having a fair solely dedicated to “African Art” stimulates judgement regarding the art form as outside the mainstream contemporary art market. The question then is, when will African Art become just part of “Contemporary Art”? On the other hand, as McLean is quick to point out, this is also one of the fair’s strengths. Having a focus based art fair is extremely useful and will encourage the exhibition of the best of Contemporary African Art right now. It has an opportunity to cater to a particular niche interest, much better than a larger “contemporary art fair” could. 1:54 provides a necessary catchment area, displaying African Art as Contemporary Art, and for any collector with a specific interest it is perfect.

Whatiftheworld will be exhibiting four of their artists, along with another three on a rotating basis. The aim of their exhibition will be to showcase diversity, artists from different countries and race groups. Racial stereotypes are common on the African Continent. Whatiftheworld attempts to break down those boundaries, and instead exhibit the art for the dialogues they create. Dan Halter, a white Zimbabwean now living in South Africa, works with ideas of dislocated identity through the medium of “craft imagery”. Working with stone sculpture, weaving, sewing, and other forms of local visual strategies in a conceptual way, he breaks down boundaries between curiosity/craft objects and “fine art”. Halter intertwines narratives embedded with the fabric of “African” history, such as abuse of power, colonialism, the idea of nation states, and Halter’s own history, as a man stuck between what it means to be a European and African.

Dan Halter at 1:54
Dan Halter at 1:54

Athi-Patra Ruga is from Umtata, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was born and home to one of the only Black Universities open during apartheid. His history is visible in his work. He explores the idea of maps, border-zones between all varieties of visual art. As is the case across most of the African Continent, the modern conflicts are due to arbitrary boundaries placed by colonial powers, causing forced migration and mass exodus. Ruga works with this idea of disenfranchisement created by cultural/political mechanisms of government and nationalism. In response, Ruga creates his own, almost utopian, republic; one where a persons cultural identity is not constrained by geographical boundaries or ancestry. He is changing what people think when they think of Africa. Instead of death, destruction, the dark continent, his work allows people to engage with art and Africa from a slightly different perspective. Although his issues are multifaceted, his aesthetic remains colorful and exuberant as he draws inspiration from camp culture and the fashion world.

John Murray and Athi-Patra Ruga at 1:54
John Murray and Athi-Patra Ruga at 1:54

John Murray is an older white South African painter, whose works provides a nice contrast to many of the other artists Whatiftheworld will be exhibiting. His work is predominantly abstract with a very modernist feel. He moves between representational and non-representation forms creating a dialog between the known and unknown. The Nigerian photographer, Lakin Ogunbanwo, is 27 years old and lives in Lagos. Ogunbanwo combines the aesthetic of fashion photography and classical portraiture to challenge such societal notions with strong erotic and sensual undertones. His photographs are predominantly of young Lagosian males draped in shadows or highlighted with blocks of deep color, reminiscent of African studio photography from the mid-twentieth century.

Cameron Platter will be part of Whatiftheworld’s rotating exhibition. He is one of the gallery’s intentionally prolific artists. He works with rudimentary raw tools to create woven textiles and carvings. His materials, recognizably representative of an African sensibility, give his work a sense of naivety, but his themes are very complex dealing with cultural divides between the rich and poor, consumerism and humanity, our desires and place in the world.

Interview conducted by Emma Wingfield.

Artsy and 1:54 talk on ‘Contemporary African Art in a Global Market’

On 9 September in New York City, Artsy and 1:54 hosted a talk on ‘Contemporary African Art in a Global Market’, featuring Touria El Glaoui, Director of 1:54, Christa Clarke, Senior Curator Arts of Global Africa at Newark Museum, Taymour Grahne, Gallerist and Exhibitor at 1:54, and Artur Walther, Photography Collector and Founder of The Walther Collection.

Following are a few pictures of the event.





Photo credit: Nick Simmons