London: African Art takes Centre Stage

Touria, daughter of renowned artist Hassan El Glaoui may have chosen to start her life as an investment banker, but today she has made a name for herself on the art scene, assisting her father and curating several exhibitions including his first retrospective, Meetings in Marrakech. In this exclusive interview, she shares her expectations for contemporary art from Africa, and why she aims at providing an international platform for African artists through her upcoming fair, 1:54.

As the daughter of the famous artist Hassan El Glaoui, one may have expected you to start your career as an artist or curator but you chose a profession in investment banking. Any particular reason for this?

As much as my father knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue painting and become an artist, I cannot say the same for myself no raw talent that pushed me in that direction. In addition, my father was not keen for any of his children to pursue this path as a professional career, knowing how difficult and full of financial insecurities it can be.

Growing up, did you ever consider being an artist?

No. But I have always been involved with the art world through my dad.

Does being an El Glaoui pose any challenges to live up to the name?

I do believe it is difficult for anyone to live in his or her parents’ shadow, and better to find your own path. As an El Glaoui, I will always try to live up to the name, a name that I am happy and proud to carry.

You have had a successful career as an investment banker, which in many ways can be viewed as more lucrative and financially stable. Why the shift to art?

I started my career in the financial industry, and switched quite early on to the telecoms and IT industry, where I covered emerging markets (MEA). The switch has taken place progressively, covering first the continent from a business development perspective, then my involvement in art with my father, which has led to this new chapter of my life, and the founding of 1:54.

Can you tell us about some projects you have worked on including Meetings in Marrakech: The Paintings of Hassan El Glaoui and Winston Churchill?

In parallel to my career, I have supported my dad with referencing his work and organizing few exhibitions. His first retrospective. Meetings in Marrakech is the last exhibition that I co-curated with the Museum of Leighton in London. It was by far the most exciting project, because it focused on my father as a young artist. I had the chance to research on the early years of his life. The outcome was a successful exhibition that is now going back to Marrakech in October 2013 and Canada in 2014.

Can you mention some other artists you have collaborated with?

Working full-time, preparing the launch of a new fair, and supporting my father’s work is all I was able to do for last 18 months.

How do you rate contemporary African art?

1:54 is here to provide an international platform and visibility for artists from the continent and the diaspora. I was impressed by the quality of the applications from the galleries we received.

What do you think is responsible for the growing global interest in modern and contemporary African art?

A number of artistic and commercial ventures have been established recently to develop contemporary African art. Whether it is the Tate, launching a two-year African art programme and establishing an Acquisition Committee, or the African Art Museum, New York building a new wing for contemporary African art, the emergence of foundations and contemporary art centres such as the RAW Material Company in Dakar, as well as the ever-growing presence of African artists in international exhibitions (such as Documenta13, Triennale de Paris) or dedicated exhibitions such as Africa Remix in 2005 or more recently We Face Forward in Manchester, The Progress of Love supported The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts at the The Menil Collection in Houston, there has been a tremendous emergence of interest and focus around the importance of contemporary African art both locally and internationally. This has resulted in the emergence of new and young galleries dedicated to contemporary African art not only in Africa but also globally in centres such as London and New York. In addition, Africa has been on an accelerating growth path over the last 10 years, and the establishment of international artistic centres show-casing African art, have brought it to the attention of new global collectors. A recent example of the international appeal is Art Dubai’s recent invitation to galleries and art centres located in West Africa to form a special part of the fair.

At what point did you decide to start an African art fair and how did you come up with the name 1:54?

In October 2011, I started by validating the idea with friends and contacts in the art world. We all agreed that it was the right time for it. I took it upon myself to develop the project with great support from Koyo Kouoh our artistic advisor and other board advisors on the project. For 1:54, I deemed it mandatory to have a name that reflects first, the diversity of Africa but underlines a common heritage. The use of numbers seemed also to be right common language. The name of the fair underlines the diversity of the continent and its art. It is not just about the fact that we are talking about one continent and 54 countries.

What have been the biggest challenges you had to overcome to get 1:54 off the ground?

Finding sponsors from the continent to support the project.

Most international art fairs do not survive beyond the 2-year mark. How do you plan on sustaining the fair?

The objective is that 1:54 becomes one of the most important destinations on the European culture calendar.
There are other successful examples of art fairs dedicated to a particular continent. They are usually dedicated to continents whose contemporary art scenes have emerged relatively recently on the international market, and have passed the 2-year mark. Collectors are by nature, curious and always looking for new artistic experiences. There is also reason to believe that given the right platform, African art will draw the focus and attention that has recently been drawn to other emerging art scenes such as Latin America and Asia, for a much longer period.
Many of the galleries who are participating in this first edition, have already shown interest in being part of future editions. In addition, there are several projects we are developing to make sure the second and third editions are as exiting as the first.

Why is your focus strictly on Africa and what have been the difficulties in hosting an African art fair in London?

The difficulty is not in hosting an African art fair, but a new fair in London in general.

What are the factors that influenced your decision to use Somerset House as a location for the fair?

I wanted an iconic location for 1:54. In addition, a strategic decision was made to host the fair during Frieze. So it was mandatory that the location was a central part of the circuit during this busy week for the collectors, institutions, and the public.

 Who are some of the galleries participating?

Are they mostly based in Africa? We have 15 galleries coming from the continent, Europe and the United States.

Are there any plans to invite more galleries and include other venues?

This year we had more applications than spaces. Somerset House is happy to host 1:54 for a second edition, and give us more space next year; the quality of works presented by the galleries participating will always be the criteria of selection.

Is there any synergy between 1:54 and other art fairs that focus on African art like the Dakar Biennale, Joburg Art Fair, and Bamako Encounters?

I had a chance to discuss the fair with different parties and participants at these events, and leverage on their knowledge and understand better the audience.

In what way will 1:54 stand apart from these fairs and other international ones?

1:54 is a platform for artists, curators, museums, and art centres involved with Africa or Africa-related projects. This means that we will have African artists who are living and working on the continent. It also means that we would not mind including works by artists such as Miguel Barcelo who has worked for many years in Mali or Olafur Eliasson who has just completed a project in Dakar for the RAW Materials company.

Africa has a pool of emerging talents that may not have the opportunity to participate in international fairs as galleries prefer to exhibit more established artists to promote sales and make up for transportation costs. How do you plan on ensuring exposure for such artists?

The fair is representing the galleries and is set to grow as the contemporary African art scene continues to develop. We have encouraged all the galleries to apply to the fair. Our committee is selecting galleries based on the quality of the proposed works and their programmes. Where the galleries/art centres had limited means, some reached out for grants to make up for transportation costs. The important role of the galleries/ art centres is to discover talents and support them to grow locally.

Many critics again argue that these African artists living and working on the continent, in contrast to those in diaspora, maybe more alive to her daily struggles and influences, and best represent African art. What is your opinion on this?

Good artists are good artists! The work might be influenced, inspired or nourished by different variables and exposure, but I would not say that one represents better African art. I have seen artists from the diaspora holding and attached so strongly to their roots that it exudes even more so in their work.

What is the role of the fair in promoting African art?

The fair will promote African visual culture. It will be a platform for artists, galleries, curators, organizations and museums immersed in African and Africa-related practices. The fair will be an amazing and unique opportunity to draw further attention to established and emerging talents from the African continent. It will raise awareness and contribute to further develop the contemporary African art scene both in Africa and internationally.

In an increasingly globalised world where artists are embracing new media, how do you think African art will maintain its distinctive flavour?

The development of the art scenes locally is important to grow and give the right visibility to the talent on the continent and keep as you say “A distinctive flavour.”

What are your expectations for the fair and how will you measure its success?

In an immediate sense, by the commercial success of the participating galleries, the response and interest of the collectors and the general public. Further down the line, the increased awareness in local African art scenes will also serve as a gauge of the fair’s success.

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