Part 2: Laissez-faire

By Tamlyn Martin

/ˌlɛseɪˈfɛː,French lɛsefɛʀ/

Visiting the 10 anniversary of London’s 1-54 Art Fair 

Believe it or not… I visited central London for the first time just 2 weeks ago to Attend the 10th Anniversary of the wonderful 1-54 African Art Fair.   It was a beautuful bright morning and the roads where very very quiet, shops just opening and before I knew it I was standing on the Thames overlooking central London from the gracious Somerset house landing .  Just like that I spotted Ashleigh and we visited the the Stunning What IF  The World Booth . Ashleigh had given me VIP tickets to the wonderful preview on the Thursday night but as I was in the middle of writing exams i couldn’t attend … 

Julian Asher, our dear Artroute friend , art collector, award-winning travel photographer, tech angel investor, and founder of specialist travel company Timeless Africa’ happily attended with one of his collector friends and they both had a wonderful experience.  

Julian especially loved Chris Saul’s powerful instillation of scorched tooth picks . ( so poetically relevant to Britain in these last few weeks ) 

The piece emerging from an ornate fire place in the What if the world exhibition space, wafted the smell of fire and poetically highlighted the energy crisis that is gripping Europe and the UK with fear. Chris’s pieces also draws attention to forests of trees, mostly in Russia that are used to make tooth picks … such a poetic symbol of excess. Oddly, when amassed into his fluid organic arrangements, their sharp hostility through a strange sensory elusion of the mass , they look soft and fluffy, like a  70’s Flocati rug  . The burnt edges,  a new site specific intervention, adds tonal weight and a feeling of time. 

Chris’s  bottle top pieces also feel ancient and ritualistic . Julian loves his work and has requested a spot to the long waiting list to be informed if any of his smaller  works come available. Like many collectors Julian is feeling that he needs to buy smaller works. 

When I finally meet him at the fair on the Saturday morning ( chuffed at passing all my exams) , we  chat a lot about  how collectors    can approach  the curating of their collections and Julian reflects on the shifts he’s noticed in the 1-54 over the years . “ I don’t honestly know whether or not more artists from marginalised communities or LGBTQ artists are being represented. It does seem like work by artists from a wider range of countries are being exhibited at 1:54, and that there is also more inclusion of artists from the African diaspora. I also noticed an increased number of works with an explicitly environmental or climate-conscious focus.” 

I was also super excited  to  hear about Julian’s experiences at the recent London Frieze Masters where he enjoyed witnessing the evolution of artists he already collects. “In terms of the works I saw at the fair, it was interesting to both see new works and to see how the work of artists I know have evolved – eg after shifting away from the masks which formed one of his signature bodies of work, this year there was a supersized mask from Goncalo Mabunda. This monumental piece was probably about 50% larger than the masks he has produced in earlier years, two of which I have in my collection.” 

Later in the day we attend Koyo Kouch’s talk on story telling through curatorial practise (Koyo  is current director of Cape Towns Zietz MOCAA  and 2 time curator of the 1-54) 

Julian reaches out to Koyo  explaining that many collectors need  help and advice around curating their collections and often feel limited by the art spaces they have in their homes or office. Koyo playfully offers her help, another member of the audience also mentions the idea of communal art, shared ownership and collectors and museums working more symbiotically . Beautiful ideas populate the lecture hall as Koyo fondly recalls her time building the 1-54 fair into the inclusive  representative space it is today .

We all have a good belly laugh as she confesses fondly that her mother only took her career seriously when she was made director of the Zietz MOCAA, despite the her massive contributions over the last decade to making Contemporary Art from Africa globally visible. 

 It was so special  to continue this conversation with Koyo as we stood on the landing overlooking the  powerful “ 0 Barco “ instillation in the courtyard . Julian sharing about some of the  works in his collection that could possibly be included in future shows. Koyo  talks about the vital role the collector plays in supporting the overall art ecology  and how institutions and collectors could potentially collaborate…. I’m hoping these powerful chats will continue when Julian is next in Cape Town.  

Julian also very sweetly shared  how he felt visiting the fairs with specialist enhanced his experience- “ I would also say that visiting the fair with you was an eye-opening experience – while I am a longtime collector of contemporary African art and have been attending 1:54 London for years, the amount of additional context I got from having you there with me was remarkable. It was similar to attending Frieze Masters with another friend who studied art history at the Courtauld – there was much more depth to the experience. It’s worth considering this as an extension of ArtRoute’s gallery and museum tours.” 

Koyo herself boldly stated in her talk that “ She hates Art Fairs and their  commercialism”, but she also quickly admits that , particularity the 1-54 Fair ,  offer a  vitally important interface between creators in Africa and a  European and British audience.  It makes it possible for art enthusiasts, academic , collectors and galleries to get an overview of current trends  and themes unfolding. 

For me I’m observing a return to pleasure, the healing catharsis of beauty , even in works that have strong political messages , the beauty of the image or materiality become part of the works power.  I love the huge array of works and it’s just so exciting seeing huge volumes of art buyers snd supporters. Many of the artists who’s studios we visit in Cape  Town are represented. The Spier space is lovely and vibrant and the  Berman Contemporary  cleverly picked up on the live art workshop trend. It’ was fantastic to see artists creating live works in their space, even during our talks we where asked to contribute written pieces. It’s lovely to see this participatory aspect happening  organically.