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Interview – The art of an art fair

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Interview – The art of an art fair

1:54 brought together three people deeply engaged in the art world to discuss the fair: Hussam Otaibi, managing partner of Floreat Group, the main sponsor of the fair and founder of Modern Forms: Laetitia Catoir, director at Blain|Southern, and part of the 1:54 Artistic Committee; and Nick Hackworth, director of Modern Forms.

NH: Laetitia, perhaps you could start by telling us about how 1:54 got going? You helped found it, I understand?

LC: Yes, I became heavily involved with the inaugural year after Touria El Glaoui approached me to find out what I thought about the idea of creating a contemporary African art fair. Touria is connected to art through her family (her father is a renowned artist), but she didn’t have a background in the art business, so she had this great, fresh perspective on everything that was going on in the art world. I thought it was a great idea and we both felt the time was right given the lack of visibility around African art. That first year Koyo Kouoh and I helped as much as we could to get the fair off the ground but there was very little other support or understanding of what we were trying to do. We were running things on a shoestring. That first year we had 17 participating galleries, this year there are 40 galleries spread across three wings of Somerset House and the fair is now a fixture on Frieze Week’s art calendar.

NH: When was this?

LC: 2012… What most people don’t know is that it took a year and a mammoth amount of research to get it going, looking at potential participating artists and galleries, and to see if the market was ready for the fair…

NH: And what was the response of the market when you were testing the waters?

LC: Well, it’s interesting because when we started there were mixed reactions, some support but others were saying things like, ‘it’s a crazy idea… the market is not there yet… you’re ahead of the curve, not just by a few years, but by a lot!’ and some people even thought that it was a bad idea to hold an African Art fair at all…

NH: Because of the danger of pigeonholing artists as ‘African’ rather than just being artists?

LC: Yes, precisely, the continent is so diverse that even discussing “African” art can seem nonsensical, but what came out of our research at the time was the fact that in the main fairs the proportion of African art on view was just 0.05%! So as far as we were concerned there was need for the focus a fair provides. Also, given the continent is made up of 54 countries – hence the title of the fair – there’s a huge diversity and variety of artistic practice to draw on, which wasn’t getting the recognition it deserves.

NH: Hussam, as a collector and, through Floreat, the sponsor, what’s your take on this issue of having a fair defined by an identity like “African”?

HO: Well personally, I’m interested in great artists, wherever they’re from… at the same time we all have many identities and so I don’t have a problem with it. As a sponsor, I think there is something particularly interesting about 1:54. An art fair, by definition is about circulating art and creating new markets and, Laetitia, what you said about the low levels of representation of African artists in other fairs is, for me, a winning argument for establishing 1:54, even given the problematic nature of identity, or labels… and to put it simply we collected some spectacular artists at 1:54 last year, and all [these] artists were new to me… so…

NH: Obviously I agree. Equally, it’s interesting to watch the art market’s effect on content, and to see the kind of content that ends up being amplified by the market. I’ve been going to the Dubai Art Fair for a long time, since just after it started and I think a kind of market-friendly Middle Eastern art aesthetic emerged, which often revolved around a sort of pop-art treatment of calligraphic forms… contemporary art that was explicitly ‘Middle Eastern’… so I guess there’s a danger that by identifying a market as ‘Middle Eastern’, ‘African’ or ‘Chinese’, you might start encouraging collectors to look for work that ‘looks’ like whatever any of those identities is deemed to ‘look like’ in the market…

LC: Yes … that could be a danger but the fair is extremely lucky to have Koyo Kouoh on board, who works across Africa, Europe and the US. Her work has seen her serve as advisor to the artistic director for Documenta and as a member of the Golden Lion Jury at the Venice Biennale; she has a rigorous approach. 

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“The way we look at selection is to simply look for outstanding artists, not for any particular practice, message, or view”

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HO: That’s true, because if I think back to last year, I mean, yes, there were some artists whose identity seemed to be ‘African’, in their concerns at least, but most of the artists just seemed to me to be good, contemporary, artists.

LC: After going round the fair, in any year, you realise that there may be some common threads but they’re not what you’d expect them to be. What’s also interesting is seeing how the art scene has evolved in Africa over the last few years. I’ve just came back from Accra, Ghana where the lack of state funding means the scene is driven by private galleries, collectives and self-funded street art festivals.

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“Internationally, the focus on contemporary African art has grown massively. Sotheby’s has recently launched an African Art department and African artists have big solo shows in leading contemporary galleries and museums across the globe”

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It’s a great example of how artists themselves are forging ahead. Elsewhere, new galleries and museums are opening and private collectors are looking to open institutions in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa, to name a few. There has been increase in artistic infrastructure on the continent at all levels. For example, next year contemporary African art will take centre stage at Fondation Louis Vuitton with an exhibition dedicated to 15 emerging artists from South Africa and an exhibition of works from the Jean Pigozzi collection. African artists both at home and in the diaspora have prominence and I think 1:54, along with a general rise in interest in contemporary African art, both in Africa and outside the continent, has helped make that happen. It’s exciting time for African art.

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