• Zoltan Alexander

nº55 / 1:54 LONDON 2020 / PART-I

Following the unprecedented success of 1:54 London in 2019 and Marrakesh in February 2020, early October founding director Touria El Glaoui opened the 8th edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Part I & II will take you through Somerset House.

Review by Zoltan Alexander




Featured galleries and artists

Leila Alaoui (Marrakesh) at Somerset House (London), Moustapha Baidi Oumarou at Afikaris (Paris), Prince Gyasi at Nil Gallery (Paris), Josue Comoe at Galerie Number 8 (Brussels)

1:54 LONDON 2020 / © video by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA

I felt like a Black guy from New York trapped in Peru?!? Well, undoubtedly but it makes sense.

It is always challenging to write about art fairs especially when it comes to 1:54, which galleries we are going to select, who are the outstanding artists of our time.

During the past six-eight months, when people had to stay at home and could not travel, our format of reviews had radically changed. Whilst reviews should normally stick to brief descriptions and one or two pictures, (apparently readers cannot cope with more), we have decided to take another direction, break these limits, make the articles excessively long, apply dozens of photographic images, stories, videos and interviews, giving an option to those who are not in the position to visit galleries, art fairs or simply London.

In any other year, Frieze London in Regent's Park heralds the start of the most exciting week of the season with openings, private events, parties and gallery dinners. Frieze usually attracts over 60.000 people; the city is buzzing with the crazy art crowd from all over the world and there are lots of boozy nights.

This year, the mood was very different. The city was sombre and silent with deserted streets and austere galleries. Almost all art fairs were cancelled, presentations went online and just a few private openings were held in situ in galleries. Half faces and masks became the norm, parties went on Facetime and the air was charged with new rules and regulations instead of lightless of being as the Tier 02 of lockdown seemed quite imminent.

October 2020 Somerset House / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Despite current circumstances, founding director Touria El Glaoui went ahead and brought the 8th edition of 1:54 to Somerset House in early October as she has done it in the past seven years with much success. The first edition was in 2013 in London followed by New York and Marrakesh.

On the global art scene, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair has established itself as a leading, unique voice in contemporary African art.

Designer Philippe-Olivier Amany of Ozwald Boateng at Guns and Rain Gallery in front of Thina Dube's work / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA


Unlike in previous years, the art fair was scaled down to 30 international galleries but it was definitely scaled up in quality. Fewer presentations meant more options and time to establish a closer and more intimate relationship with galleries and artists. The art fair was showcasing more than 110 established and emerging contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora, working in a wide variety of mediums and from a range of geographical backgrounds.

In 2020, 1:54 created a special edition with a physical exhibition at Somerset House and with the participation of Christie’s at their headquarters and online, offering an opportunity to engage with compelling works in person and on the internet.

1:54 ONLINE, powered by Christie’s, offered virtual viewing rooms that featured over 600 works from international exhibitors from across Africa, Europe and North America.

1:54 HIGHLIGHTS, a curated pop-up exhibition, included one seminal work from each exhibitor at Christie’s headquarters at King Street.

The art fair was once again accompanied by 1:54 FORUM with its extensive programme of artists’ talks, film screenings and panel discussions curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba under the title, “I felt like a Black guy from New York trapped in Peru.


For everybody’s relief, throughout the art fair, 1:54 was implementing in collaboration with Somerset House with strict safety measures to ensure everyone’s health and security by time-slot ticketing, a one-way circuit with fewer people and VIP access.

“Somerset House functions more like a museum with its safety measures and we wanted to create one of the safest places to visit and enjoy the art fair" Touria El Glaoui

"Les Marocains" by Leila Alaoui / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

LEILA ALAOUI / Marrakesh

In collaboration with 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at the Charles Russell Speechlys terrace room series, the photographic exhibition Rite of Passage” of Leila Alaoui opened simultaneously at Somerset House and continues as a standalone show throughout the winter season until 2021.

It is the most outstanding exhibition and the first major UK retrospective of the late French-Moroccan photographer. Alaoui was a rising star in the world of documentary photography, focusing her lens on the plight of marginalised groups around the world. In 2016, whilst working on a women’s rights campaign with Amnesty International, Alaoui was caught in gunfire during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and three days later, at age 33, died of her wounds.

"Les Marocains" by Leila Alaoui / Photo © Courtesy of Fondation Leila Alaoui

Leila Alaoui retrospective

Honouring Alaoui's photographic practice, the exhibition includes three of her defining series of works “Les Marocains”, “No Pasara” and “Natreen”, as well as Alaoui’s final unfinished video work “L’Île du Diable - Devil’s Island”, exploring the lives of a 1960s generation of dispossessed migrant workers in France.

Opening with the Alaoui's most celebrated series, “Les Marocains” (2010-2014), the exhibition positions the viewer face-to-face with life-sized portraits of the men and women Alaoui met during her travels across her home country of Morocco. Presented on black backgrounds, these portraits demand that we focus on every detail, the appearance of the people, the multi-layered, bright coloured garments, head coverings and jewellery.

The global issues that Leila Alaoui chose to highlight in her work, including migration, displacement, and rapid globalisation, remain as current now as they were when she tragically died,” said Grace Perrett, exhibitions manager at Somerset House. “In bringing together documentary and aesthetic sensibilities in her work, she creates a bridge between the viewer and the people she met, encouraging understanding and empathy.”

"No Pasara" by Leila Alaoui / Photo © Courtesy of Fondation Leila Alaoui

Acclaimed for capturing the unseen stories of individuals and communities displaced by conflict and unrest, Alaoui’s photography offers an intimate portrait into rich cultural identities and resilient societies facing uncertainty. The subjects of her works are pictured across the contemporary Mediterranean landscape and beyond, from Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in Lebanon to young North Africans seeking an alternative future in Europe. Alaoui’s images are both informed yet artistic, giving a human face to people who often become lost and misrepresented behind the waves of statistic numbers and news coverage.

"No Pasara" by Leila Alaoui / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Before I started writing this article, I went through the photographs I had taken during the art fair and noticed without being conscious about it, that I was drawn to images of the void where the artist deliberately left part of the painting and the faces blank or a part of the bodies was unfinished.

Most of the time, the void embraced the anonymous characters without a face on an extremely simplified background. These artists also shared something together; almost all of them were involved in helping their community and country, which is purely remarkable considering how young these artists are.

Here is our selection at Somerset House:

"Pop Vision #1" by Moustapha Baidi Oumarou / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA


While a few months back Paris-based gallery Afikaris needed some introduction, following their participation with 1:54 Marrakesh with Cameroon artist Jean David Nkot, AKAA in Paris, 1:54 New York and Art Paris, the gallery is now inseparable from contemporary African art. In fact, there is no other gallery that represents their artists more passionately than Afikaris and the way its founding director Florian Azzopardi does it.

For many years Azzopardi travelled around Africa to discover emerging artists mostly from Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Morocco and started collecting their works. He had the eagle eye to find hidden talents. In 2018, Azzopardi decided to conciliate his passion for art and Africa and launched Afikaris. His vision to become a reference gallery for contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora came true.

"Politiciens #6" by Salifou Lindou / Photo © Courtesy of Afikaris

Afikaris focuses on supporting artists who live on the continent both well-established and not yet discovered. The gallery, which operates from its Paris based location (by appointment only), is globally active due to international art fairs, travelling exhibitions and their strong online presence.

Gallery owner Florian Azzopardi at 1:54 London / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Florian Azzopardi is not only passionate but also dedicated. He wanted to take part in 1:54 London, and despite the current circumstance in the UK, he came two weeks prior to the art fair’s opening to fulfil the latest quarantine rules of the British Government. He came with a group show presenting four African artists, Moustapha Baidi Oumarou, Salifou Lindou, Ousmane Niang and Nyaba Ouedraogo who propose their vision to see the world pushing the viewers towards the future.

How do artists challenge our perception of Time and Space? Afikaris delivered the answer not just at Somerset House but throughout a VR exhibition on their website created for their online visitors.

"Instant de Joie" diptych by Moustapha Baidi Oumarou / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

AFIKARIS presents Moustapha Baidi Oumarou / Cameroon

Moustapha Baidi Oumarou is a born humanist, embarrassingly young and immensely talented. He was born in Maroua, in the extreme north of Cameroon. Since his early years, he developed a sense of observation allowing himself to look at life with a certain philosophic approach. Following his practice in silkscreen printing, he decided to focus on painting and in 2013, at the age of 17, he won the third prize in Visual Arts of the Yawalta Maroua Festival. Moustapha Baidi Oumarou is undoubtedly a conscious and humanist painter. His paintings are always positive, uplifting and very optimistic. By staging his anonymous characters without a face in an extremely simplified décor and a monochrome background, with strong colours, half-finished details and a variety of flowers, Moustapha Baidi Oumarou makes his humanist message a universal one. Through his paintings - no matter of the colour of the skin or nationality - everybody can identify themselves with moments of joy and love.

"Le Monde en Bleu" by Moustapha Baidi Oumarou

I aim to paint the joyful aspect of life. My characters represent the “flower man”, they embody moments of humanity, moments of joy and love. I am also inspired by the contemporary wave of life."

"In my work, I want to put forward this humanist side we all have inside us. I draw and paint the world with my most beautiful and powerful palette of colours. I am a politically engaged artist.”

Moustapha Baidi Oumarou