Giving Space to Black Women at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

The brightly colored, angular abstractions of South African artist Esther Mahlangu, inspired by the Ndebele visual tradition, captivated me as soon as I walked into the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York. At age 88, Mahlangu serves as the matriarch for the fair, whose theme — intentional or not — is Black women and their multifaceted lives.

Through Saturday, May 4 in the lobby of Chelsea’s 2.3-million-square-foot Starrett-Lehigh building, 1-54 presents more than 200 artworks across 32 international galleries and five special projects. Founded in London in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui, the fair expanded to New York in 2015 and to Marrakech in 2018. In its early days, “access was the number one limitation — the fact that [they] were not part of the narrative,” said El Glaoui.

Now, the fair draws “serious collectors” who recognize the names of artists like Aidan Marak, a Moroccan native who made her New York debut at 1-54 this year in a solo presentation by Casablanca’s So Art Gallery. Using words and images of the female body, Marak’s work deals with identity and nonconformity. 

“I was the girl who didn’t really follow the cultural rules and the religious beliefs,” she told me when I approached the booth on the fair’s opening day. Growing up a woman in a Muslim household with a strong Jewish presence in her community, Marak was raised with specific expectations of who she was to be and how she was to behave. The self-proclaimed outcast would have none of it. She married outside her religion and pursued a career in the arts (although she earned a degree in architecture and worked at a firm to appease her family).

In Wood Series 1 (2023) 16 multi-media canvases are arranged evenly in four rows of four. Close inspection reveals lines of text that read like existential poetry, written in English, Arabic, French, and Hebrew. Take a few steps back and a woman’s face appears in each vibrant, black-framed canvas, her eyes always closed.

“We have to act peaceful and we carry so much load, but everything is happening around [us],” said Marak. “It’s a false perception of who we are as women; whatever we’re going through, we always have to carry that peaceful face.”

Throughout the fair, the most pervasive style of work was portraiture. Viewers are not only confronted with the presence and gaze of Black women, but encouraged to try to understand their fraught histories, how that affects their sense of self, and how society perceives them.

“[There’s] this type of metaphor about being a Black person in a White world. How does that affect your body? How does that affect your state of mind? Your health? Your wealth?” said Mary-Lou Ngwe-Secke, head of curation at 193 Gallery in Paris. She spoke of the work of artist Christa David, who merges Black women’s bodies and landscapes in a recurring theme across her collages.  

Abe Odedina’s blue-skinned women wear bright lipstick and fill the canvas with authoritative stances like superheroes. “What I see are just amazing humans,” said Odedina as he told me stories about strong female figures in his life, including his late mother, who recently passed at the age of 97. 

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Abe Odedina celebrates the strong women in his life, including his late mother.

And if Mahlangu is the show’s matriarch, then Joshua Michael Adokuru’s “St. Claire” (2022) serves as its embodiment. Wool thread is laboriously woven across nails on a large wooden panel to create the image of a young girl who exudes sunshine as bright as her yellow dress. Despite her age, she seems invincible, holding the posture and countenance of someone wise beyond their years. She is a metaphor for the strength and confidence of a future where African artists no longer have to fight to be visible.  

While the fair’s aim is to highlight the diaspora of contemporary African artists and weave them into the historically White, European narrative of the art world, the special attention to women artists and subject matter highlights the importance of intersectional representation in the fight for inclusion.

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