"DIARY | Fair Exchange: Allison Young around the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair” 

May 5, 2017

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Left: Gallerist El-Yesha Puplampu and artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. Right: Curator Koyo Kouoh and founder of 1:54 Touria El Glaoui.
(All photos: Allison Young)

“ART HAS ALWAYS BEEN A SITE OF RESISTANCE, A SITE OF REFUGE IN HARD TIMES,” Dakar-based curator Koyo Kouoh mused while we were discussing the impressive lineup she had organized for this weekend’s discursive and artistic program throughout the third iteration of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. During the morning preview at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, we stood in front of Nú Barreto’s monumental Disunited States of Africa, 2010, an American flag reconceived as pan-African icon. Black stars representing African nations cascade down the composition, crossing gold and red stripes, which are adorned with cowrie shells, prayer beads, medicine bottles, and books. Koyo describes it as “the black flag, the Vodou flag, the resistance flag, the reparation flag, and the African American flag.” We also discussed the growing sense of sorrow in today’s world, an increasingly standard topic of conversation––but, as hate grows more visible, so shall resistance and art.

Fairgoers will complain all they want about 1:54’s location in Red Hook, which is not reachable by subway, but apparently we weren’t remote enough to be shielded from the ripple effect of our dear president’s first official visit to New York. Aboard the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier and military museum on the Hudson River, Trump commemorated a 1942 battle between the allied US and Australia with Japan, all while we immersed ourselves in the “global”—once a postmodern ideal, now a lifeline.

At Ed Cross Fine Art, whose booth was conceived as a kind of basilica by curator Katherine Finerty, works by Kimathi Donkor and Modupeola Fadugba also explore the nexus of faith, resistance, and power. Fadugba’s “Flowers and Prayers” series conflates the iconic shape of the Brookes slave ship with the stained windows of Gothic cathedrals. I chatted with artist liaison Caroline Hussey-Bain about religion’s dual capacity to heal and uplift, control and suppress. She drew my attention to Fadugba’s other paintings, wherein synchronized swimmers balance atop one another and reach toward a red sphere, signifying the coveted red sticker that marks an artwork as sold. She explained that the artist is interested in how women strengthen one another and find success in the power of our collectivity. I’m convinced that we have no other choice. The next time I looked at my phone, I was alerted to the upcoming House of Representatives vote over a healthcare bill that would include sexual assault and pregnancy on a list of “preexisting conditions,” rendering one ineligible for coverage. Later that day, the bill would pass muster.

On the third floor of Pioneer Works, resident artist Tahir Karmali has a solo exhibition that will be on view through May 28. It is a powerful, subtle meditation on the bureaucracy of immigration, expressed through the materiality of paper. A Kenyan artist of Indian heritage, now living and working in the US, Karmali is cognizant not only of the colonial crossroads in which his ancestry is entangled, but also his own experiences of border crossing. “With this project, I’m looking at how paper is used as an authenticator, a way to document identity,” he told me. He grinds his own identification documents down to a pulp. The mesh filters used for making paper by sifting the pulp become the armature for his installations, encompassing concepts such as “vetting, screening, the filtration and porousness of borders.”

Despite the tightening of such demarcations, there’s definitely a buzz around African art, and the mood among the exhibitors was optimistic and infectious. I talked to South African artist Jeannette Unite about the upcoming debut of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, and later heard about the growth of the South African art world from Maria Fidel Regueros of Johannesburg’s ROOM. This edition also welcomes several international newcomers to New York. Notable among these is Gallery 1957, a trailblazer in Accra’s budding contemporary art scene. Founded only one year ago, the gallery has already made the rounds in fairs from Lagos to Cape Town to London, and is off to Istanbul later this year. I asked dealer El-Yesha Puplampu about their successful first year, and she justifiably takes pride in the fact that “we’re showing how it should be done.”

Leaving a bit later than I had planned, and realizing how hungry I was, I prepared to dine solo and made a beeline for a burger at Hope & Anchor. But a few other fairgoers had the same idea: Artists Ousmane Mbaye, Saïdou Dicko, Evans Mbugua, and writer Jacqueline Ngo Mpii generously invited me to join them. Based in France and originally from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively, they are mostly Francophone, and my French leaves much to be desired. But we get by, speaking in disjointed Franglais about food, art, and moving around New York. There’s nothing better than a meal with new friends—barriers be damned—to stave off the ennui of the day’s political tragedies.