When I visit central London and pass through intersection upon intersection of regally kept buildings with intricately embellished fronts of antique stone and wrought iron gates, I always wonder what the city would have looked like two hundred years ago. The upkeep of the capital’s history, from street names such as East India Dock Road to antique artefacts controversially secured in polished glass boxes, walks a fine line between heritage remembrance and a bow to London’s colonial past.
Somerset House, one of London’s many refurbished grand sites, is a Georgian palace tucked away on the edge of the River Thames. This is the grand venue that opened its doors in October 2018 to host 1–54, the leading international fair for contemporary African and diasporic art. Running for its sixth year, 1–54 was originally founded by Touria El Glaoui, curated by Ekow Eshunhas and has rotating exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the United States and North Africa showcasing all of Africa’s fifty-four countries and its diaspora with one hundred and thirty pieces of contemporary art.
As I walked across Somerset House’s entrance to attend the fair, I passed a courtyard exhibition of geometric, life-size meditation tree sculptures created by South Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. Pausing to look at the trees, had me thinking about the artistic process of translating contemporary notions of ‘Africanness’ and/or ‘blackness’ through art as well as the bridged divide from housing the art in a space such as the cobble-stoned grounds of Somerset House. Upon entering the lobby, my eyes bounced across a crowd of African art consumers and I spotted bedazzled chunky Gucci trainers with matching bum bags, forest green covered lips and a head full of twisted jumbo Marley braids. I wondered how my mauve coloured Turkish style maxi dress, bronzy Fenty highlighted cheekbones and middle parted slick bun compared. As I wove in and out of a largely mixed, yet predominantly French group of art sellers, buyers and visitors of African art, it seemed as if everyone was familiar with everyone and part of a well-connected clique of African art lovers.