Fair report: 1.54 Contemporary African Art Fair

16-20 October 2013, Somerset House, London

By ArtReview

Amadou Sanogo, 2013, acrylic on fabric. Amadou Sanogo, 2013, acrylic on fabric. Ernest Mancoba, untitled, 1986, 42 x 59 cm. Cyprien Tokoudagba,  Agbogbolinsou, 2007, mixed media on canvasm 113 x 153cm. Photo: ArtReview Malick Sidibé, Nuit de Noël, 1964. Photo: ArtReview Meschac Gaba, Perruque architecture – Milan 12 (Italie), 2006, braided artificial hair and mixed media, 56 x 20 x 30 cm. Photo: ArtReview Edson Chagas, Found not Taken, Luanda, 2013, courtesy the artist and Apalazzo Gallery Nestor Da, Untitled 18, Ondes de perturbation series, © Nestor Da 2012-Courtesy Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Paul Sika, L Appel de Lilian1 © Paul Sika 2012 - Courtesy Galerie Cecile Fakhoury Uche James-Iroha, Rolls Royce I, 2013, Oliver Enwonwu

‘African art’. It’s one of those things that the art market – like any historically western-centred power system – normally approaches rather crassly, lumping disparate nations into one apparently homogenous group. The title of this new addition to October art fair jamboree, 1:54, referring to the number of countries in the one continent, goes out of its way to avoid this neocolonialist faux pas.

 ‘Africa is not a country’ as the retort goes. Admittedly artistic director Koyo Kouoh, a Cameroonian-born curator who was one of the ‘cultural agents’ of last year’s Documenta, has not managed to represent every single African country – but with art by Tanzanean, Senegalese, Malian, Angolan and Beninese artists, and galleries from Mali, Equatorial New Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, there is a wide selection on show – going beyond the usual couple of big South African outfits that inadequately represent the continent in mainstream art fairs. Alongside galleries actually based in Africa, are a selection of western dealers who have an interest in work from the region: Milan’s Galleria Continua, London’s Jack Bell and Berlin’s Mikael Andersen among them.

The latter was the only gallery to stage a presentation of a single artist, Ernest Mancoba, the South African painter who died in 2002; something that the neoclassical interior fixtures of the fair's venue, Somerset House, provided a fitting setting for. 

The 21 ink and oil pastel or ink and watercolour on paper works were a fine demonstration of the artist’s fusion of South African figurative tradition with the European abstractionism that the artist was exposed to after his move to Paris in 1938, and subsequent marriage to the Danish sculptor, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba. Figures – perhaps humanoid, but not necessarily so, emerge out of Mancoda’s profusion of dulled markings. There’s something a little uncanny, feverish, to these undated, untitled, works.

In Magnin-A’s exhibition space, the Parisian gallery have two fine paintings by Amadou Sanogo, a young artist from Mali and possibly the most interesting ‘discovery’ from ArtReview’s perspective at the fair. Each is a faux-naïve rendition of a limbless individual in acrylic on apparently found fabric. In the first, the grey figure is perched on a stool, a green bottle sat on the merest suggestion of a bar in front of him/her/it. 

The second painting shows a black figure kissing what appears to be a boxing sack, a reverential victory routine perhaps. The amount of emotion conveyed by these sad portrait subjects, when compared to the dearth of formal detail that configure them, is testament to Sanogo’s skill.

Magnin-A also have an edition of Malick Sidibé’s Nuit de Noël hanging over one of the many fireplaces in the venue, making the 1963 photograph, which depicts a fashionable young Malian couple mid dance, the centepiece of their space (it’s a similar display trick played to great affect by the non-profit, privately funded, Museum of Modern Art, Equatorial New Guinea, who are showing a striking 2007 painting by the late Beninese artist Cyprien Tokoudagba depicting the Abomey King Guézo as a big blue bird, manhandling a human baby).

Examples of mid-twentieth century studio photography are in abundance throughout. While Sidibé’s work is reasonably familiar, there are other, less well-known names such as Adama Kouyaté, who likewise had a permanent studio, open to paying sitters, in Bamako during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Kouyaté’s portraits, a small selection of which appear on Ségou-based Carpe Diem’s stand, are joyous affairs, full of young hipsters striking confident poses – the men in flares and tight, half unbuttoned shirts, the women in fashionably cut print dresses. While perhaps whimsical in manner, they are onetheless intriguing documents of a particular social history.