1:54 African Art Fair, Somerset House, London – review

Riding the wave of interest in contemporary African art, the first fair devoted to art from that continent opened in London this week. Situated in Somerset House’s luminous chambers, with their period fireplaces and pale wooden floors, the 17 exhibitors could not enjoy a more inviting and central venue. As the fair’s title, 1:54, implies, it is impossible to capture the artistic essence of a continent that comprises 54 countries. Rather, this is an array stamped by its diversity.

Visitors can expect an abundance of figurative painting and photography. There is no film or video work and little found-object installation. Instead, the sub-Saharan tradition of transforming everyday material into sophisticated sculptures resonates powerfully. Taking pride of place at the far end of the corridor beneath the building’s dramatic spiralling stairwell is “Exit Ball”, a sphere of jerry cans assembled by Benin artist Romuald Hazoumè which resembles both a ticking bomb and a football.

Hazoumè is represented by two galleries here, the London-based October Gallery, which has a long history of supporting African artists, and Magnin-A, the Paris-based artists’ agency founded in 2009 by André Magnin, who was formerly the director of the Pigozzi Collection.

It is a reflection of the continent’s nascent artistic infrastructure that only five of the commercial spaces here – ARTLabAfrica (Nairobi, Kenya), Carpe Diem (Ségou, Mali), First Floor Gallery Harare (Harare, Zimbabwe), Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Abidjan, Ivory Coast) and Omenka Gallery (Lagos, Nigeria) – have their bases in Africa. There are also two other non-commercial exhibitors from Africa: the Museum of Modern Art in Equatorial Guinea – a young privately assembled collection that has yet to decide on a permanent space – and Aria, which runs artist residency programmes in Algeria.

There are no galleries from north Africa, though there are several artists with ties to that region. Noticeable too is the absence of any galleries from South Africa, which has the most developed art market in the continent. “We were a bit disappointed that none wanted to show here,” admits the fair’s founding director Touria El Glaoui, adding that two leading South African galleries, Goodman and Stevenson, were already participating at Frieze.

Reflecting the global exchange that is a signature of the contemporary art scene, many of the 70 artists are African-born but based elsewhere or move between various regions. Overall, there is a stimulating equilibrium between well-known names and emerging talent. Sumptuous black and white prints by Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, both represented by Magnin-A, testify to Mali’s fine tradition of photography. Made to honour figures such as Fela Kuti, exquisitely braided sculptures of artificial hair by Benin-born Meshac Gaba – whose exhibition was one of the highlights at Tate Modern this year – are on sale at Paris-based gallery In Situ from €15,000 to €18,000.

At October Gallery a compelling display includes a wall-hanging of stitched metal plates eroded by water into shimmering patterns (£15,500) by Kenyan-born Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga.

Anyone accustomed to Frieze’s six-figure sums will be startled by the less grandiose prices here. Tucked away in October’s window alcove is surely one of the fair’s steals, a 2009 abstraction, “Market Lane”, at £6,800. Carpeted with badges of intense colour applied with a palette knife, the picture by Accra-born painter and educator Ablade Glover gloriously summons the teeming scene of its title.

Buyers should take their cue from the name of the Carpe Diem gallery. A rivetingly poetic picture of a figure sprawled in front of a city, whose blurred, expressive contours have been painted in charcoal on a mixture of kaolin and cement by Amahiguéré Dolo, is priced at just €800. Born in Mali’s Dogon territory, Dolo is better known for his wooden sculptures, some of which reside in the collection of Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.

Also striking are layered silkscreen prints (€5,000-€70,000) by Zimbabwean artist Virginia Chihota at ARTLabAfrica. With no permanent gallery space, the project was started by Lavinia Calza, a British woman who moved to Nairobi in 2012 and is on Tate Modern’s Africa acquisitions committee. Representatives from the latter were touring the fair in the company of Tate International art curator Elvira Dyangari Ose. Curators from MoMA and the Serpentine Gallery were also in attendance.

Although the fair has just opened, sales have been reported. Seattle-based gallery M.I.A., for example, has sold a photograph of a statuesque Senegalese man in long robes – “Ibrahim” (2008) – by Patrizia Maïmouna Guerresi, for £14,000 to an African-based collector.

Officially booths cost £10,000 each, but El Ghaloui says many galleries negotiated their prices. The costs of two galleries, Carpe Diem and First Floor Harare, have been partly covered by no-profit organisations, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie and the Prince Claus Fund respectively. For the luxurious central London setting, the fair must thank the generosity of its chief sponsors, Moroccan bank BMCE. “We hope they are going to be our [Frieze-sponsoring] Deutsche Bank,” says El Ghaloui.

Until October 20, 1-54.com

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