A Guided Tour of Contemporary African Art in London during 1:54

The week ahead is one of the most exciting times for Contemporary African art in London and in the art world. As the art enthusiasts, artists, curators and collectors from across the world descend on the vibrant city, London plays host not only to Frieze but also to the third London edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair.

Since the inaugural fair in 2013, the number of galleries specialising in African art has grown tremendously as has the number of people coming to the fair, with over 10,000 visitors in 2014. In addition to the return of the fair, here’s how to get ahead and on top of Contemporary African art in the ever-dynamic artistic hub that is London.


Between September and October, a number of shows coincide with this year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House. Central London has a lot to offer to those interested in African Art and this is where the guided tour begins.

A new comer to the London art scene is Tyburn Gallery, a gallery located in Marylebone. Describing themselves as a gallery dedicated to international contemporary art, with Africa as point of departure, their inaugural show Broken English features a number of African artists representing a diverse practice. The exhibition, which is on until the 28th of October presents the work of artists such as provocative Tunisian artist Mouna Karray, Zimbabwean artists Moffat Takadiwa, Dan Halter and Michele Mathison. The show also presents a strong contingent of diverse work from South Africa by artists Bridget Baker, Mohau Modikaseng and Rowan Smith. Broken English also gives you a chance to see work by two artists who will be exhibited at 1:54: Athi Patra-Ruga and Joël Andrianomearisoa.

A few minutes from Tyburn Gallery is a hidden gem of the contemporary African art scene in London, TAFETA. Initially set up as an art consultancy in 2005, today TAFETA is a by-appointment gallery on Margaret Street in Fitzrovia. Although the recent show Road to Abstraction by Kainebi Osahenye closed on the 3rd of October. TAFETA also works with dynamic artists Yinka Shonibare and the intriguing Leo Asemota whose new show The Avatāra Suite opens at TAFETA on the 7th of October and runs until the 3rd of November.

Not too far from Tyburn Gallery and TAFETA, a recently opened show at Tiwani Contemporary on Little Portland Street in Fitzrovia is Constellations by British-Ethiopian artist Theo Eshetu. Tiwani opened in 2011, and since then it has exhibited artists such as Kapwani Kiwanga and ruby onyiechi amanze who will be part of 1:54 this year, as well as Franciso Vidal with a forthcoming show at Tiwani entitled Workshop from the 13th of November.

In his first solo exhibition in the UK, Eshetu’s show will provide insight into the artist’s complex practice and incorporation of different media, such as TV, film and Video. Constellations weaves together influences such as his Ethiopian heritage and his own way of conveying his fragmented memory of the country, having lived there until the age of 5. Constellations will run until the 31st of October. Eshetu’s work will also be featured in the film programme at FORUM at 1:54 and the artist will take part in a talk with Dexter Wimberly, independent curator and Director of Strategic Planning at Independent Curators International.

The Eshetu, 'Anima Mundi', 2014, Multi media and video installation, Series of 5 numbered works + 2 A.P. 24 minutes, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary
The Eshetu, ‘Anima Mundi’, 2014, Multi media and video installation, Series of 5 numbered works + 2 A.P. 24 minutes, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary

Newer London based galleries include not only Tiwani Contemporary but also Jack Bell Gallery. Located in Mason’s Yard in Mayfair, Jack Bell Gallery opened in February 2010. Jack Bell represent the following artists who will be exhibited at the fair, namely: Aboudia, Boris Nzebo, Karo Akpokiere, Steve Bandoma, Gonçalo Mabunda, father and son duo Leonce Raphael Agbojdelou and Joseph Moise Agbodjelou, as well as the renowned Haimdou Maiga. From the 13th of October to the 6th of November, the gallery will present Black History Hotel, a show by Boris Nzebo.

Also located in Mayfair is GAFRA: Gallery for African Art on Abermarle Street. While the exhibition Mozambique: The Dialogue Continues by Illido Candja Candja and Sergo Santimano came to a close on the 3rd of October, a new exhibition opens at GAFRA on the 8th. Transcultural Expression is a solo exhibition of works by Ghanaian artist Wiz Kudowor, featuring his early and recent paintings.

Vigo Gallery, located on Dering Street in Mayfair is also worth mentioning for those interested in visiting exhibitions of contemporary African art in London. While the recent show by Ibrahim El-Salahi The Arab Spring Notebook ended on the 3rd of October, Vigo gallery represent Zak Ové and Hassan Hajjaj, in addition to El-Salahi, and will be presenting all three at 1:54.

Leaving Marylebone, Fitzrovia and Mayfair and heading into Bloomsbury, we go to another gallery in London known for their specialisation in African art. Established in 1979 the reputed October Gallery has exhibited artists such as El Anatsui and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Sokari Douglas Camp, Ablade Glover, Nnena Okore and Romuald Hazoumè all of whom will be present at 1:54. Additionally, Aubrey Williams: Realms of the Sun will open at October Gallery on the 8th of October 2015. Williams was an abstractionist artist born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1926. Following his death in 1990, Realms of the Sun will present a series of previously unseen works.

Romuald Hazoumè, 'Zemi', 1997, Found Objects, 44 x 46 x 25 cm, Photograph Jonathan Greet, Courtesy of October Gallery
Romuald Hazoumè, ‘Zemi’, 1997, Found Objects, 44 x 46 x 25 cm, Photograph Jonathan Greet, Courtesy of October Gallery

A gallery that has a presence in both Central and in East London is Victoria Miro. At Victoria Miro on Wharf Road in October, is the first of two shows by Kara Walker. The first being Go To Hell Or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, which opened on the 1st of October. Victoria Miro is accustomed to exhibiting reputed artists from the African diaspora, following a highly acclaimed show by Wangechi Mutu last November: Nguva Na Nyoka. This year, coinciding with 1:54, Kara Walker’s exhibition will present a new body of work by the artist inspired by Atlanta, the city where the artist spent her teenage years. Walker’s work occupies and embodies the tension between provocation and humour and engages with encircling themes such as the role of power in racial and gender relations.

With galleries in both London and Cape Town, Sulger-Buel Lovell has contributed to the growth of African art in London, having opened a space on Surrey Row in Southwark in 2014. The solo show Portraits by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk opened recently on the 29th of September and is on until the 24th of October. A solo exhibition by the Nigerian artist presents a series of paintings and drawings, as well as an ephemeral drawing, which are all rooted in the exploration of traditional graphics and systems of writing in Nigeria.

Other South London galleries that have featured work by African and African diaspora artists include the White Cube. The two concurrent shows earlier this year in Bermondsey by revered Theaster Gates and the promising Michael Armitage made for. Gates, the winner of the Artes Mundi 6, presented a show Freedom of Assembly that was characteristic of his practice, through using and transforming materials gathered from disused buildings from the artist’s own neighbourhood in Chicago. This show was exhibited after the deeply moving multimedia installation Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr (2014) in the Arsenale in the main exhibition All The World’s Futures at the 56th Venice Biennale. (Of course, as the Venice Biennale is still on until the 22nd of November, I would highly recommend Gates’ installation). In his first solo show in the UK Kenyan-born Armitage, showing alongside Gates presented works that wove together multiple influences and narratives, derived from the artists upbringing in Kenya and ties to the country.

Finishing off in West London, 50 Golborne present Afro-Tropism: Important Furniture by Jean Servais Somian & Ceramics by Astrid Dahl as part of the London Design Festival. Somian and Dahl are both artists and designers based in Africa, originating from Ivory Coast and South Africa respectively. 50 Golborne is a gallery specialised in African art, specifically looking at the convergence between art, design and craft from the continent and its diaspora, simultaneously situating it within a global context.


Of course, in London there are a number of museums such as the Tate that have contributed to the expansive growth of contemporary African art. These include initiatives by the Tate Modern to showcase artists such as Ibrahim El-Salahi hosting his retrospective show, in addition to a special installation by the artist Meschac Gaba Museum of Contemporary African Art both in 2013. Moreover in 2013, the South African artist William Kentridge’s installation I am not me, the horse is not mine was showcased at the Tanks at Tate Modern. Artist Theo Eshetu was also featured in the Tate Modern’s series Transform in addition to talks by artists such as Wangechi Mutu as part of Tate In conversation and Julie Mehretu featured in American Artist Lecture Series. This year the Tate Modern also put on a retrospective of work by artist South African artist Marlene Dumas in The Image as Burden. It is also worth mentioning that the Tate Britain will hold a new exhibition in November (25th of November 2015 to 10 April 2016) Artist and Empire, which will feature works by Aubrey Williams and Sonia Boyce.

While the British Museum is well known for its collection of traditional African art, it is increasingly taking notice of contemporary art from the continent. The collection of British Museum, which holds work by artists such as Peterson Kamwathi (represented by ARTLabAfrica) in its collection, and recently showed the Moko Jumbie sculptures by UK-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové (represented by Vigo Gallery). Moreover the British Museum is hosting the exhibition From the figurative to the abstract: modern art from the Arab World which runs until the 8th of November and features North African artists such as Tunisian born Tahar M’Guedini.

Zak Ové, 'Nubian Return', 2009, Mixed media including seventies rootsein mannequin, aircraft fuselage, telephone box shelter, metal signage, etc., 250 x 150 x 40 cm, Courtesy of Vigo Gallery
Zak Ové, ‘Nubian Return’, 2009, Mixed media including seventies rootsein mannequin, aircraft fuselage, telephone box shelter, metal signage, etc., 250 x 150 x 40 cm, Courtesy of Vigo Gallery

Other special spaces and events deserving a mention include The Chimurenga Library from the 8th of October to 21st of November 2015. Following the Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko exhibition in Paris at La Fondation Cartier and the remarkable collaboration with Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station (PASS) to pay homage to Congolese music culture, it is now the turn of London. PASS comes to London as a Pop-Up space at the Showroom.

The Chimurenga Library is a project co-curated by The Otolith Collective and The Showroom, supported by the SA-UK Seasons 2014 & 2015 – who have also supported 1:54.

Another institution based in the East is Iniva – Institute of International Visual Arts. Housed in Rivington Place, designed by much-celebrated architect David Adjaye, Iniva is a non-profit London institution that is recognised for its support of African and Africa Diaspora Artists. Between the 2nd of October and the 5th of December Autography ABP will hold the exhibition Rock Against Racism at Rivington Place. This exhibition is an embodiment of the Art of the African diaspora and black art that London has made possible. This is also the first major exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs, capturing the spirit of the time, which was characterised by unrest and tumult.

Focusing our view on South London; although it has only just closed, a show ‘South of the river’ by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape is worth a mention. In Slow-Co-Ruption at the Hayward Gallery, Bopape skilfully layered complex sculptural installations with video-montages. Her work engages with notions of fragmentation in memory and representation.

Another South African artist exhibited in South London is Kemang Wa Lehulere. Wa Lehulere’s show Sincerely yours, at Gasworks in Vauxhall runs until the 8th of November. In his first solo exhibition in the UK the artist explores notions of personal and collective memory and the role of history and amnesia in creating and interrogating the archive. The artist will also take part in FORUM at 1:54 this year, in conversation with the curator Omar Khaleif.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 'Interstellar', 2012, Serpentine Gallery
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘Interstellar’, 2012, Serpentine Gallery

Heading to the hallowed SW postcode is gallery that has contributed to the visibility of African art in London, and has expanded conceptions of what ‘contemporary art is’. Larger galleries such as the Saatchi Gallery recently included the work of African artists in shows such as Pangaea I and Pangea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America such as Ephrem Solomon and Dawit Abebe, as well as Ibrahim Mahama and Eddy Kamuanga Illunga who will be exhibited at this year’s edition of 1:54 at Somerset House. Beyond Chelsea and into the Serpentine Gallery located in the Kensington Gardens, a notable show this year also was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Verses After Dark.


London has established itself a fast-paced centre for the African art market. Art auctions have played an increasingly important role in getting work by African artists into collections, as well as recognizing them for their work. Inaugurated in 2009, the Bonhams Africa Now auction, has in the past seen artists such as Ben Enwonwu do remarkably well – being sold for a much as £361,250.

Bonhams returns once again, with the Africa Now auction starting on the 15th of October 2015. The auction features work by revered artists such as El Anatsui, who in 2012 sold for £541,250.

This October, the online auction house The Auction Room presents an auction entitled Contemporary Art from African and the African Diaspora. The auction will be on exhibition from Friday 16th to Tuesday 20th October. The auction will take place online at 2pm UK time on 20th October. An exhibition of work by the Congolese artist Aimé Mpane entitled No More Candy will also be on view from Friday 16th to Wednesday 28th October. From Friday 16th October, Ely House will also exhibit a monumental coal sack installation by the acclaimed Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama whilst his book Out of Bounds, published by CRANE Projects.

Film and Conversations

Other opportunities to engage with cultural production from the continent include the BFI London Film Festivals. A highlight this year at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival was Stories of Our Lives. The film made by Kenyan collective The Nest, was noticeably in the style of artist Jim Chuchu (who is a member of the Collective, and will be exhibited by Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at 1:54). Two films showing this October deserving of a mention are the classic Black Girl by legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. Another film that has had tremendous success is Lamb, a debut film by Ethiopian filmmaker Yared Zeleke.

Jim Chuchu, 'Pagans IX', 2014, Digital Print, edition of 8, 100 x 100 cm, Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Jim Chuchu, ‘Pagans IX’, 2014, Digital Print, edition of 8, 100 x 100 cm, Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

The Tate will also be giving Londoners a chance to revisit the work of the visionary Sankofa collective in their Autumn screenings programme. Sankofa as a collective were deeply subversive in their exploration new black subjectivities, negotiating the politics of self-representation, incorporating black feminist theory and introducing audiences to New Queer Cinema.

At SOAS University London, the School of Arts will hold an International Artists’ Symposium: Art & Collaboration on the 11th of October. The Symposium will feature Joy Gregory in conversation with Peterson Kamwathi, introduced by Touria El Glaoui, Founding Director 1:54, as well as Sonia Boyce in conversation with Samson Kambalu. The day will end with a book launch of Making Art in Africa 1960-2010 by Polly Savage, edited by Lund Humphries. The book documents and archives moments in art making in Africa since independence and brings together perspectives from 69 artists and curators across the continent.

Peterson Kamwathi, 'Untitled, Positions Series Part II, XII', 2015, Charcoal, stencil, pastel, spray paint, watercolour, ink and collage on paper, 91.5 x 75 cm, Courtesy of ARTLabAfrica
Peterson Kamwathi, ‘Untitled, Positions Series Part II, XII’, 2015, Charcoal, stencil, pastel, spray paint, watercolour, ink and collage on paper, 91.5 x 75 cm, Courtesy of ARTLabAfrica

Autograph ABP will also hold a talk on the 28th of October, where Mark Sealy and curator Renée Mussai will be in conversation with artist Bruno Boudjelal. The talk will revolve around Boudjelal’s exhibition as well as his accompanying photography book Vanishing into Reality, released in conjunction with the exhibition. Boudjelal’s exhibition Frantz Fanon opened on the 2nd of October, and continues until the 5th of December.

Black History Month

While 1:54 runs from the 15th to the 18th of October, the entire month of October is also Black History Month in the UK. There are a number of exhibitions that are either running specially for Black History Month, or have previously opened and are scheduled to run through October.

The exhibition No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990 at the Guildhall Art Gallery is on until the 24th of January 2016. Through combining archival material and art, the exhibition pays homage to a period in which migrant-settler communities established diverse and robust cultural production. The exhibition looks at Black British Cultural heritage from the perspective of the Black Art Movement of the 1960s to the 1990s.

The Brunei Gallery at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) hosts exhibitions, which are contemporary and historical from a diverse range of regions. On the 14th of October, Triumph of the Grassroots: British Social History 1972-2012 will open at the Brunei Gallery.

A highly anticipated exhibition this year was Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s held at the V&A Museum. The exhibition featured photographs from the V&A’s collection. Together with the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), the programme included an urgent and provocative symposium “Disseminating Identities: Black Art from 1960 to Now”.

Moreover the Black Cultural Archives has become a renowned institution, aiming to “collect, preserve and celebrate the heritage and history of Black people in Britain”. Based in Brixton, this October they will hold an exhibition Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar. It opens on the 9th of October and runs until the 9th of April 2016.

Undoubtedly the presence of African art London is being felt. While 1:54 has established itself in the art fair circuit, this has been a period marked by growth and increased visibility for African art and artists. Having witnessed the growth of the fair since 2013, in parallel to an increased interest in African art, this is an influential moment for those from the continent and its Diasporas to make their voices heard and to engage in cultural exchange and production on a global platform.

Mukami Kuria

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