Marrakech is the perfect place for an art fair. The city itself is something of a work of art, with its sprawling Medina, vivid colors, magnificent gardens, and dazzling light. The city’s aesthetic charm has long drawn a variety of international visitors. Perhaps the most famous was Yves St. Lauren, who made Marrakech his home, left it with a museum, and restored the now world-famous Majorelle Garden. Yet many other well-known figures have frequented the city, from Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Winston Churchill, who often visited the city to paint at the magnificent Mamounia Hotel.

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1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Marrakech Exhibition view at la Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco.

Today, the Mamounia continues to welcome artists and art lovers. For the past three years, it has played host to the annual visit of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Founded by French-Moroccan entrepreneur Touria El Glaoui, 1-54 is the first leading international art fair dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The event has appeared annually in London since 2013, New York since 2015, and Marrakech since 2018. This 3rd edition of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place February 20-23.

The 2020 edition of 1-54 showcased the work of over 70 artists from a variety of African countries, some emerging, some well-established. Their art was displayed in 70 galleries across Marrakech, alongside some 30 partner events.

“What I think is extraordinary about 1-54 is that it’s a fair that allows artists and visitors to cross-pollinate.”

By all accounts, this year’s event went down as a success. Collector Zineb Saous said: “What I think is extraordinary about 1-54 is that it’s a fair that allows artists and visitors to cross-pollinate. It’s wonderful to see people from different backgrounds and cultures interact, speak, and learn from each other.”

Amina Agueznay Ankabouth 2 2016 2018

Amina Agueznay, Ankabouth # 2, 2016-2018

Saous had particular praise for Moroccan artist Amina Agueznay, who uses textiles and focuses largely on women’s issues. “What I love about her is that her work is always very alive and it’s wonderful to see how she mixes her talent in architecture to produce beautiful messages about women in this country,” Saous said. “She has no limits.”

Laila Hida runs the renowned gallery Le 18 in the heart of the Marrakech Medina, which was heavily involved in the 1-54 showcase. During the fair, Le 18 presented an opening entitled “À l’épreuve du tamis” (sieve proof), a collective exhibition that explores contemporary culture.

“I believe this year was stronger in terms of the growing number of partner projects and spaces,” Hida said, speaking to Inside Arabia. “The 1-54 is an opportunity to present to visitors with a wider view of the local scene and its diversity as well as to promote the city as a perfect host for this kind of gathering. . . .There were great projects on [display] this year, such as “Malhoun 2.0,” “Archeologie de l’intime (Dar Belarj),” “Intra Muros (Comptoir des Mines),” and many others.”

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Hida also complimented the city of Marrakech for its ability to incorporate events such as 1-54. “There was clearly a desire from the various local structures to be part of the dynamics of this event and to find the resources to create,” she told Inside Arabia. “It demonstrates the capacity of the scene to react, to create, to collaborate with great resilience.”

1 54 Forum Marrakech 2020 On Focus Communal Knowledge at large

1-54 Forum Marrakech 2020. On Focus: Communal Knowledge at large

Another success of 2020 was the 1-54 Forum, the fair’s series of talks, panels, and discussion events. The Forum was curated by The Showroom, of London, and led by Elvira Dyangani Ose. The main program was entitled: “On Focus: Communal Knowledge at Large,” which built on The Showroom’s Communal Knowledge collaborative art program, translating it into new contexts[1]. The forum is an important part of the art fair as it pushes beyond the work itself, exploring the power of art to give visibility to important issues, both regional and international.

Lakin Ogunbanwo combines modern fashion photography and classical portraiture, usually with erotic, subversive undertones.

An example of this power in art is the work of Nigerian photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo, who became the first winner of a new residency program for his exhibition “WHATIFTHEWORLD,” which was first presented in Cape Town. Ogunbanwo’s work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue Italia, ID online, British GQ, Riposte Magazine, and more.

Lakin OgunbanwoUntitled III 2019 Image courtesy of WHATIFTHEWORLD and Lakin Ogunbanwo 1 54 Contemporary African Art Fair

Lakin Ogunbanwo,Untitled III, 2019 (Image courtesy WHATIFTHEWORLD and Lakin Ogunbanwo) 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

Ogunbanwo combines modern fashion photography and classical portraiture, usually with erotic and subversive undertones, with his subjects often masked by shadow, fabric, or leaves. According to the 1-54 literature, this aspect of his work is largely an homage to the African studio photography of the 1960s and 70s.

Marie-Cecile Zinsou, collector, and President of the Zinsou Foundation, called Ogunbanwo’s work “a revelation.” She also complimented Kenyan artist Lebohang Kganye, whose work also formed a key part of the exhibition at the Mamounia. Kganye is primarily a photographer, but incorporates her interest in other media, such as film and performance, into her work. Also, among those whose work was featured was Mouinir Fatmi, a polymathic Moroccan artist who works with video, drawing, painting, and sculpture.

Ogunbanwo is set to complete his residency in Amsterdam throughout 2020, although it will likely be postponed due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. The residency program aims to build cultural ties between artists in the Netherlands and those of the African diaspora living in the country. This is but one of many examples of contributions to the 1-54 Art Fair by organizations linked with the Netherlands.

One example of the Dutch-connection (and one of the highlights of the fair) was “One Square Meter Berber,” a project exhibited at the magnificent Bahia Palace. “One Square Meter Berber” is a collaboration between traditional Moroccan crafts and Dutch design, led by Dutch-Moroccan designer and entrepreneur Mina Abouzahra. The project exhibits exquisite carpets made by traditional Moroccan women’s collectives and works to foster the understanding of Berber culture in the Netherlands, which has a sizable population of Moroccan immigrants.

In her interview with Inside Arabia, Abouzahra spoke glowingly of 1-54, stressing that she believes it to be a hugely positive institution. However, she believes that the event could go a lot further to help the African continent it seeks to represent. “The 1-54 is a fantastic fair and it’s great that they are showcasing African art. But I wish it was less elitist,” she said. “I would prefer to see African art presented as folk art in a setting that is more accessible to ordinary people. Often I would be at an event and think to myself ‘I can count all of the African people here on two hands!’ It’s a superb event, but sometimes seems just like a European or American art fair, which is missing a big opportunity to display African art more authentically, especially as we are in Africa.”

“I would prefer to see African art presented as folk art in a setting that is more accessible to ordinary people.”

Like so many other countries, Morocco is currently going through a dark time. With the nation on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are fearful of the future. Yet dynamic events such as 1-54 show that the Moroccan state has less to worry about than most. The art fair was one of many stunning adverts for the North African country and those who attended will be in no doubt that Marrakech is a city with the infrastructure and the ideas to bounce back stronger when this is all over.

[1]Author’s note: Recordings of the entire 1-54 Forum are available here.