Five Unmissable Artists from London’s African Art Fair

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1. Khadija, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy
Khadija© Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery

As 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair hits London, we highlight some of the most exciting emerging and established artists showing at it

‘Frieze week’, as the whole spectacle of the annual art fair has come to be known in London, presents myriad events, exhibitions and unforgettable sights to savour. One standout example in the melting pot this year is the fifth edition of 1:54, the art fair dedicated to showcasing the best in contemporary African art. The fair has made a name for itself as a go-to destination for the latest in both emerging talent and the established artists who have ingrained themselves in the global art scenes. Bigger things are on the horizon for the fair, too, as February 2018 will see its first edition in Marrakesh, and indeed in Africa. Coinciding with its opening in London today, we’ve picked out five brilliant artists you simply can’t miss at 1:54.

1. Hassan Hajjaj (above)

Hassan Hajjaj was born in Marrakesh but raised in the UK, and spends much of his time travelling between the two countries. His photographic, video and sculptural objects represent a melting pot of street culture, uncovering how people connect through music, fashion and conversation. Many of his works are framed by brightly coloured quotidian items such as soda cans and geometric textiles, marrying the aesthetics of consumer culture with individualistic elements of cultural identity. Hajjaj’s solo exhibition at Somerset House, La Caravane, will extend beyond this weekend to January of next year, too. 

2. Abe Odedina

“I’m an old man, but a young painter,” says Odedina, who is now in his fifties, and who began painting a decade ago after a trip to Brazil inspired him to pick up a brush. His energised plywood paintings exclusively feature black individuals; he became tired of people reducing the readings to racial politics. He adds, with pointed, wry humour: “I’m not interested in some 19th-century conversation, I wasn’t at that meeting!”

Odedina is also keen to avoid any direct, didactic messages in his imagery, although he does employ a certain amount of symbolism. Musical instruments feature heavily, as well as animals and back drops of brickwork and curtains, not to mention voices portrayed through something akin to ropes of thick fog. These elements reveal a world of joyous parties, intimate relationships and spirituality, which feel at once wonderfully personal and thoroughly universal.

3. Marlise Keith

Although Marlise Keith refers to all of her work simply as ‘drawings’, some pieces are actually complex, large-scale mixed-media studies, which employ delicate materials such as glass beads and embroidery. These manic pieces include everything from dismembered heads on spikes to gigantic dogs, all of which are informed by a strange mix of childhood memories, macabre news headlines, colonial histories and banal Pinterest boards. The result is something of a twisted, contemporary take on Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of hell.

4. Abdoulaye Konaté

The internationally recognised Konaté draws on a huge West African textile tradition to produce his monumental abstract and figurative works. Using painstaking dying processes he builds gorgeous layers of colour on thin strips, culminating in contemporary tapestries that reference the sociopolitical landscape of his native Mali, as well as ancient African symbolism. Beyond his studio practice Konaté has also actively contributed to conserving the country’s arts education and combating cast unemployment by founding the Balla Fasséké Kouyaté Conservatory.

5. Kudzanai-Violet Hwami

Hwami’s paintings imagine an alternative universe where the LGBTQ community is celebrated and the bold and beautiful world of Afropunk is fully embraced. Her portraits focus on a powerful, intimate and even occasionally humorous reading of the black female body, giving life to a form that is often heavily politicised. Her piece at 1:54 features a young, nude woman boldly stepping forth from a bright, mango-yellow background complete with a luscious potted plant, while two disembodied black hands creep in from the edges. The combination of a confident central figure coupled with these outstretched fingers call to themes of diaspora and displacement – a subject Hwami is all too familiar with, as a Zimbabwe-born artist who now lives and works in London.

1:54 Contemporary African Arts Fair runs until October 8, 2017 at Somerset House.