Artists Interview Fairs United Kingdom

Out of Africa, in to London

Why now and why here?

Soly Cissé’s Untitled, 2013, is with MIA gallery at the 1:54 African art fair

Though not yet at the level of Chinese, Russian or Indian art, the market for works from Africa has been developing steadily. Combined with a surge of interest from major international museums—the Tate’s programme of African acquisitions over the past year chief among them—it seems an auspicious time to stage the UK’s first African art fair. Touria El Glaoui is the director of 1:54, featuring 17 galleries from Europe and Africa specialising in contemporary African art. The fair opened yesterday (until 20 October), and The Art Newspaper spoke to El Glaoui, 39, the fair’s Moroccan-born director, who is the daughter of the acclaimed Moroccan painter (and one-time protégé of Winston Churchill) Hassan El Glaoui. She began her career in banking before working in business development in IT and telecoms, in the UK, Middle East and Africa.

The Art Newspaper: This is the first African art fair in London: why did you decide to start it?

Touria El Glaoui: I thought someone would have done this already. The only reason I can imagine for [it not happening before] is that I think a lot of people associate Africa with things other than art, and maybe the idea of going to Africa to source art is thought to be more complex than it is. Personally, I’ve never seen Africa as a scary place to go and that has helped me to see what was possible, that there were art scenes present.

Do you think the international art world has been slow to accept contemporary African art until recently, with collectors viewing African art as predominantly tribal or ethnographic?

Yes, I think that’s an association that’s made. It has taken a long time to understand that contemporary art is also part of the continent. In Africa, you see people collecting contemporary African art. But the view is that if it’s not collected by an international collector, then it’s not art. So it’s down to how it’s perceived internationally.

Do you want the artists to cross boundaries? Often galleries will deal exclusively in African art—Jack Bell Gallery or Tiwani Contemporary for example—it’s rarer for African artists to cross to mainstream galleries.

There are some African artists who are doing fantastically well—Yinka Shonibare, Adel Abdessemed and Julie Mehretu for example—but they all live outside of Africa.

Artists like that have had access to international support, residencies, art schools—things that are still lacking on the continent. I’m hoping in the long term that 1:54 develops the artistic scene locally.

Do you think there’s a problem with viewing this as African art? People like Yinka Shonibare aren’t necessarily considered African, just as artists.

We’re not trying to categorise things as African art. But if you go to the major international fairs and you look at the percentage of artists represented from the continent or the diaspora it’s really small, maybe 0.005%. Maybe we don’t need to categorise it but, at the end of the day, 1:54 is a place where we can have more than one painting by an African artist.

I assume the hope would be to see many more African artists at Frieze over the next few years.

That would be the best objective, as well as having international galleries representing those artists, not niche galleries. It’s important to remember that each country in Africa is so rich in culture, we can’t represent the whole continent. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Have you had much criticism about categorising this as an African art fair?

There’s always criticism in everything you do. But people are really happy that someone from Africa is doing something from an African viewpoint, that’s the main positive thing. A lot of the criticism is from people who don’t live in Africa, so they don’t understand how Africans feel. Everyone had something to say about which sponsors I could use, which collections I could work with. Africa is quite a complex continent and there’s a layer of sensitivity there.

Who are you hoping to attract to the fair? And who is buying African art right now?

I know that museums from the States are coming here to buy. But we’re targeting international collectors, those who are coming for Frieze, we’re not trying to be more niche than them. For a lot of people this will be the first time that they’ll see such a wide view of what’s happening in African art.

Do you think African art will see the same boom as Chinese art?

In the next ten years, Africa will be as important as China in terms of the market that it will represent. The burgeoning middle class that is growing right now in Africa is the art market of tomorrow. You’re going to have more Africans buying art, because they’ll have [greater] purchasing power.

1:54, Somerset House, London, 16-20 October 2013

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