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Now in its fifth year, the 1:54 art fair sees a market at a turning point Hassan Hajjaj’s ‘Kesh Angels’ at 1:54

Forty-two galleries take over London’s Somerset House this week for the fifth edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, showcasing the work of more than 130 established and emerging artists. In 2013, at the launch edition, only 17 dealers took part. Earlier this month, the 102,000 sq ft Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the privately funded mega-gallery billed as Africa’s first contemporary art museum, opened in Cape Town. Is this finally the turning point for the contemporary African art market? Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, founder of SMO Contemporary Art gallery in Lagos, says that “we are progressing quite quickly towards a tipping point”. The AKAA African Art & Design Fair and the annual African contemporary art sale held at Piasa auction house, both in Paris, are also raising global awareness about new creative talent coming out of Africa, Obiago says. “But there is still a lot of room for growth.” Her gallery is among 11 newcomers participating in 1:54 London and is the sole Nigerian dealer. In all there are 18 dealers from Africa, six from South Africa. “This is a realistic number, based on the quality of the applications,” says Touria El Glaoui, 1:54 founding director. “In terms of international art sales, the most important global hubs are still London and New York [1:54 launched there in 2015]. 1:54 has done well to position itself as the largest contemporary African art fair to date,” Obiago comments. She is showing works by three Nigerian artists, Taiye Idahor, Olumide Onadipe and Nengi Omuku; prices range from £3,000 to £15,000.

Some established names have skyrocketed, but there are emerging artists still within reach of collectors “On the local art scene, we are seeing a rapid growth in art fairs and events, such as the Art X Lagos fair, Lagos Biennial and Lagos Photo Festival, happening in October and November this year, which are all attracting an increasing number of international collectors, and curators as well as artists based in the diaspora. African art is definitely trending,” Obiago adds. She strikes a note of caution, however: “It takes a lot for an Africa-based gallery to attend international fairs. Some of my colleagues who were in the festival circuit for years have stopped coming because when you don’t make good sales, it can be financially asphyxiating.” London dealer Jack Bell is a 1:54 veteran, having participated in all five editions. He is showing works by Cameroon-based Boris Nzebo (“Celle qui vient chez toi”, 2017; £15,000) and the Ivory Coast artist Armand Boua (“En plein sciensage”, 2017; £8,000). Armand Boua’s ‘En plein sciensage’ (2017) at Jack Bell Gallery, 1:54 © Will Amlot/Jack Bell Gallery “While some established names have skyrocketed, there are a large number of emerging artists who are still within reach of collectors until the market catches on,” he says. At Sotheby’s first dedicated auction of modern and contemporary African art in London earlier this year, record prices were set for 16 artists including Boua (£17,500) and Meschac Gaba of Benin (£22,500).

Bell meets collectors and curators from Europe and the US at 1:54. “But each year this becomes more diverse, and we have been meeting more collectors and curators from South America, Asia and Africa,” he says. South Africa and Nigeria have the continent’s strongest collector bases, but both countries have only just emerged from recession. “We have always leveraged on international collectors in town during Frieze week,” El Glaoui says. “I think 85 per cent of our collectors also attend Frieze; these are mainly international, with a base of collectors from Africa and its diaspora.” Godfried Donkor’s ‘Ebony Dakar Edition’, from a new series of collages using the pages of Financial Times, at Gallery 1957 at 1:54 © John Phillips/Gallery 1957 In a highly ambitious move, she is looking to Marrakesh, where 1:54 is due to launch in February. “It is a different story there, of course. We’ll build a strong museum programme around the fair, working with institutions such as the new Yves Saint Laurent museum,” says El Glaoui. “We’re due to announce the gallery list shortly. We obviously want North African dealers to participate.” Meanwhile, one of Morocco’s most famous artistic exports is due to appear at 1:54 London.

The artist Hassan Hajjaj (dubbed the “Moroccan Warhol”), who moved to the capital in the 1970s, relishes mixing up Moroccan traditions, producing in-your-face portraits that draw on hip-hop and club culture. In a special exhibition organised with Somerset House (La Caravane, October 5 to January 7), Hajjaj will show new photographs from his Kesh Angels series, depicting Moroccan female bikers. Hassan Hajjaj’s ‘Khadija’ at 1:54 © Susan Barrett “These women work in Marrakesh as henna artists, dancers and artists, and use bikes to commute like most Marrakshi. One is wearing a djellaba I designed mixing many Arabic flags together called Hub Wahad (One Love), and the rest [wear] djellabas or designs I have either designed or picked from the souk,” says Hajjaj, who will also unveil “My Rock Stars: Volume 2”, a video installation featuring musicians such as Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. Other special projects are boosting the curatorial credentials of 1:54 London. The high-profile San Gimignano-based dealer Galleria Continua is behind this year’s show-stopping installation “Summer Surprise” by the Cameroon-born artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. Meanwhile, another special 1:54 exhibition puts the spotlight on four South African artists including Henk Serfontein and Marlise Keith. The show is sponsored by one of the world’s most prolific, and little-known, collectors of South African art: Nando’s. The peri-peri chicken chain has more than 7,300 pieces in its 370 UK restaurants.

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