Echoes from Frieze and 1-54: A writer’s diary – Toni Kan

...contemporary art is thriving

Five minutes after I arrived in Somerset House on Thursday 12th October 2023 for the 2023 edition of 1-54, I realised I was wearing the wrong shoes.

I had only just seen Moroccan Amine El Gotaibi’s courtyard installation “Illuminate The Light” presented in collaboration with MCC Gallery. The monumental installation follows in the footsteps of others like Zak Ove, whose amazing installation of 40 graphite sculptural figures with the title; “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blacknessblew me away on my first 1-54 visit in 2016.

El Gotaibi’s installation was made up of 12 geometric sculptures inspired by the seeds of a pomegranate. Varying in shape, they represent the diversity of the African continent and as night falls, they are transformed into luminous installations as captured below by the artist, Victor Ehikhamenor

The writer inside a pomegranate
The writer inside a pomegranate – Photo Credit: Victor Ehikhamenor

This was my third time at 1 -54 since it was launched in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui, as the pre-eminent international fair dedicated to providing visibility to contemporary art from Africa artists and those in the diaspora. 1-54 holds three editions every year—in London, New York and Marrakech with a pop-up fair in Paris

By the time I made it into the South Wing, I was too tired to continue after popping into a few booths – Tafeta, 193 Gallery, albertz benda, Guns and Rain, so I give up and settled into a chair at the Affinity booth where I sat and shot the breeze with Olugbenro and his team who were busy taking enquiries and doing what art entrepreneurs do.

I I decided to return on Sunday for a more comprehensive tour and  based on my repeat visit, my conclusion is that contemporary African art is alive and well and thriving with artists expressing themselves in varying media from the traditional to the post-modernist and the avant-garde with technology playing a key role in their productions.

Nowhere is that handshake between technology and art more evident than in the special project presented by Nigerian musical artist, Mr. Eazi. The title was “The Evil Genius”, which is also the title of his forthcoming album set to drop on 27 October courtesy Empawa.

After two fruitless trips in search of the exhibits on the Lower Ground floor, I was finally pointed to the right booth by writer and journalist, Belind Otas. It was packed

Mr. Ezi describes his special project as “a remarkable, first-of-its-kind fusion of contemporary African art and music” and features 16 paintings by eight artists drawn from eight African countries.

Described as “multi-sensory”, visitors stand before the art works from the featured artists like Beninoise Patricorel, South African Sinalo Ngcaba and Nigerian Tammy Sinclair etc and listen to the songs via earphones.

While the music is nothing less than stellar as one would expect from an artist of Mr. Eazi’s calibre who held his own alongside Beyonce, the paintings did not elicit the same feeling. They were underwhelming to say the least and Mr. Eazi who has said “I don’t know anything about modern art, I’m not cultured in art history’ has not acquitted himself well as a curator.

Nigerian galleries were well represented and I did stop at a few – Affinity, Tafeta and SMO Contemporary.

A standout piece for me was Morgan Mahape’s Special project consisting of artworks made of glass beads strung on fishing lines hanging on wood described as a cross between “drapery, tapestry, painting and sculpture,” and it was at 1-54 2023 that I saw my first El Anatsui sculpture.

The photographic pieces depicting intricate hairstyles by South African Trevor triggered nostalgic feelings about J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere whose practice was defined by a focus on the aesthetics of African hair-styles and adornments.

On Friday, I made my way to The Regent’s Park for Frieze 2023. Described as “one of the world’s most influential contemporary art fairs” it features an exhibition of sculptures in the English Gardens of The Regents Park. That was where I began with a walk through accompanied by Ugoma Adegoke of Bloom Art Lagos.

Zak Ove’s futuristic sculpture

Some of the stand-out pieces for me were Zak Ove’s futuristic and colourful sculptural piece  “The Mothership Connection” which doesn’t fully come alive until it is lit up at dusk bringing with it the exuberance and colour of his Caribbean heritage.

Toni Matelli’s hyper-realist “Sleepwalker” was poignant and magnetic while Yinka Shonibare’s “Material (SG) IV (2023)”, a bigger and more colourful iteration of “Wind Sculpture in Bronze (SG) 1 which he presented at Stephen Friedman Gallery was no less captivating.

Hank Willis Thomas’ “All Power to All People” was political, provocative and subversive all at once while Louise Nevelson’s “Model for Celebration II” compelled a second and third look from different sides.

Hank Willis Thomas and Louise Nevelson
Hank Willis Thomas and Louise Nevelson

Inside, in the booths, Frieze 2023 was a showcase of the best of contemporary art but it could very well have been called Frieze 2023: Yinka Shonibare edition because Yinka Shonibare’s works, conceived and executed during his time at his Guest Artists Space Foundation in Nigeria, were front and centre. His works were shown in the park, by three separate galleries and in the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management VIP lounge.

Mariel Capanna’s “Borrowed Light
Mariel Capanna’s “Borrowed Light

Mariel Capanna’s “Borrowed Light” series seemed derivative of Piet Mondrian but at the same time disarmingly original with their muted tones.

Frieze and 1-54 2023 have come and gone and we are already looking forward to Art X in Lagos and more fairs that showcase the best of contemporary art from Africa and around the world.

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