The experience of contemporary African art is as diverse and various as the experience of the continent itself. The 1.54 Art Fair at Somerset House is a wide-ranging survey of the modalities of cultural expression from young African artists as well as historical giants. Gallery 1957 from Ghana, for example, displays a generous selection of works by the artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. Clottey is perhaps best known for his sculptures and installations referencing the ubiquitous plastic jugs that litter Ghana in the wake of the administration of the western darling, John Kufuor. A sense of the anguish towards environmental colonialism that pervades not only Ghana, but the whole of the continent is searingly present in the 1.54 Fair.
Houda Terjuman’s haunting vitrine of a group of trees entirely disconnected to soil or earth in Morocco’s VOICE gallery display also brought environmental themes to the fore. The African continent has become a dumping ground, not only for Global North toxic sludge, but also the detritus of a consumerist high-tech economy (which, literally, runs on minerals extracted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries). The DRC-based artist, Maurice Mbikayi, draws on this ongoing process of environmental vandalism, but also the DRC’s own rich culture of fashion and ostentatious displays of sartorial elegance in works including ‘Googling my Dreams’, in which displaced computer keyboards adorn top hats and useless remote controls are integrated into walking sticks at the display from the Italian gallery, Officiene dell’Immagine.
Particularly moving is an exhibition by another Italian gallery, Apalazzogallery, featuring works by em’Kal eyongaKpa. The exhibition consists of a series of photographs depicting figures fading in and out of landscapes; the sense of loss and erasure that the works evoke is almost too much to bear, particularly at the current juncture in contemporary history, as black history, and black futures, are casually erased by structural and physical violence. A collection of works by the legendary chronicler of the American Civil Rights struggle era, Gordon Parks, featured in the display by Jenkins Johnson gallery is a reminder that the African experience must be understood as a diasporic experience as well. Parks serves are a reminder that Africa does not end at the Atlantic Ocean; in many ways, it only begins there.
The 1.54 is often unflinching, but it is also an exuberant celebration of the vibrancy and tenacity of creativity that Africans on the continent and people of African heritage around the world are producing. If the fair proves nothing else it makes clear that the Roman writer, Pliny the Elder’s, epigram, “ex Africa, semper aliquid novi”–from Africa, always something new—has never been truer.