Focusing on Photo Portraits at New York’s Contemporary African Art Fair

May 6, 2016 in Hyperallergic

The 2016 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The second edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair opened today at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Seventeen galleries from all over the world have convened to exhibit the work of pan-African artists and artists of the African diaspora. The show originated in London in 2013 and made its NYC debut last spring. The exhibition has returned to New York with an outstanding array of contemporary African imagery, including several standout galleries and photographers.

This is a compact but rewarding show. Pioneer Works has been broken up into a rabbit warren of spaces, most of which show the work beautifully, although a few feel shoehorned in. It’s a beautiful setting with a luscious outdoor garden, where, for the duration of the fair, you can get delicious African food. I recommend the jerk chicken.

The 2016 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
The emphasis at the fair is mainly on two-dimensional work, with photography as the common thread. The medium has long flourished in Africa, beginning with the great Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta (1921–2001), who elevated the simple documentary portrait into a mesmerizing body of work that caught worldwide attention. His contemporary, Malick Sidibé (1936–2016), also originally a portraitist and a great one, expanded the genre as he began to take pictures in more casual settings, in nightclubs and outdoors.

Several galleries at 1:54 are showing their work. However, it is their offspring, if you will, the generations that have followed Keïta and Sidibé, that really make an impact at this fair.

Afronova gallery from Johannesburg is showing the work of three contemporary photographers, each arresting in its own way. John Liebenberg makes classic black-and-white prints with gloriously rich silver tones. Liebenberg worked as a photojournalist during conflicts in Namibia and Angola, but Afronova is showing his rather intimate and informal portraits of everyday people. They are quiet and very moving.


John Liebenberg, “The Last Supper” (1986), at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)

Lebohang Kganye, a young South African woman, makes color digital photos, mostly of women in ordinary life. She often uses double images that linger like odd ghosts, reflecting alternative readings of her subjects. Nontsikelelo Veleko, meanwhile, shoots young men on the street, offering a collective portrait of urban life, fashion, and male identity.


Lebohang Kganye, “sSetshwantso le ngwanaka II” (2012), at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)
Nontsikelelo Veleko, “SIBU VIII,” at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)

A Palazzo Gallery from Brescia, Italy, has three large-format formal portraits by Edson Chagas that offer a sly commentary on African identity. Each one features a man photographed front and square to the camera, with something completely covering his head. One is a stiff, plastic tote bag, somewhat ironically emblazoned with the slogan “World of Hope.” Another is a souvenir bag from the Caribbean that, in bright and cherry colors, lists all of the Caribbean islands. The third is an oversized African mask of carved wood, which makes a delightfully incongruous combination with the madras plaid shirt the man sports.

Edson Chagas, “Oikonomos” (2011), at A Palazzo Gallery’s booth (image courtesy A Palazzo Gallery)

David Krut Projects, a gallery with spaces in South Africa and New York, has a spectacular suite of images by Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh. They are digital, highly manipulated, and printed on paper usually used for printmaking, which gives them a luscious quality. The richly saturated color feels like it has soaked into the thick rag paper stock.


Works by Aida Muluneh at David Krut Projects’ booth (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

To these photographic highlights it’s worth adding one painting that resonates especially, given the setting: Amadou Sanogo’s knockout work in the booth of Paris’s Magnin-A Gallery. Entitled “Les Observateurs,” it portrays a rear view of two enigmatic figures. Lovely, loose brushstrokes and a strong elegant palette highlight the mystery.


Amadou Sanogo, “Les Observateurs,”’ at Magnin-A Gallery’s booth (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s true that Red Hook is not the easiest place to get to by public transport, but in the midst of the Frieze Week frenzy, it’s worth making your way out to 1:54. You’ll see work that is fresh and a world away from the rest of what’s showing in New York this weekend. And don’t forget the jerk chicken.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair 2016 continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 8.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, A Palazzo Gallery, Afronova, Aida Muluneh, Amadou Sanogo, David Krut Projects, Edson Chagas, Frieze Week 2016, John Liebenberg, Lebohang Kganye, Magnin-A Gallery,  Nontsikelelo Veleko

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