This past weekend I went all out arts. Although I can’t claim I was the only one. It was the time of the Frieze art fair here in London so if you were at all plugged into the art world every email pan list you were on, every gallery you knew, was talking about Frieze. I followed suite and went, and then topped it off with a second fair. One lesser known, whose inaugural exhibition was this year. It was 1:54, a contemporary African art fair hosted in the Sommerset House.
Lets start with Frieze. It was of course all the things you expect to hear: teeming with people, Prada bags, and large scale sculptures next to heavily painted canvases. Gallery owners had set up camp talking to all the visitors, explaining their “stable” of artists and the work they were producing. It was a large space, big enough to see the art well which was an added bonus. Above the works was a cute little café of course serving combinations of smoked salmon and avocado cream cheese that could only be found at, well, an art fair café. I liked the energy. It was busy but not hectic, and there was so much to see (not to point out the obvious). But really. The range of work on display was unreal, from algorithmic video art to large marble sculptures. The ideas behind all these visual pieces were varied. And my favorite part, they were international. The galleries were from all over the world, so the artists on view were in a sense representing literally the cutting edge artistic ideas of the world. And I wasn’t the only one to see that, the Tate galleries every year come to buy work from the Frieze fair for their collection. That got me thinking about the people who come to fairs to buy. How do they choose what to purchase? Some say they pick what they like, others say they pick what art advisors tell them to. How does a major museum decide? Apparently they have their trusted team of curators and advisors, and art sector experts. The museum combines the advice given to them with their goals as an institutions and then they buy. I couldn’t believe that in the face of thousands of works, a group of 5 people might be choosing the few works that would soon become absorbed into a collection that plays a huge role in shaping the future cannon of art history. Some may say this is undemocratic, and it might be. But, what I am more concerned about it discovery. How are artists discovered? How are artistic trends revealed? How can we be sure that as a society we are getting into the nooks and crannies of every part of the world to see what they are producing and try to fold it into a larger routine of visibility to a large audience? Did Frieze do that? Did it present to buyers all of their options?
Now lets go to 1:54, the contemporary African Art Fair. Aside from showcasing vibrant colors, aggressive textures, and provocative blend of religious and tribal imagery, this fair also showcased intellectual differences in how the arts are supported in a developing nation. I went to a panel discussion featuring the founder of the fair. She spoke about the state of the cultural sector in the 54 African states. When asked if she felt that America was too much competition to the African states she replied quite simply saying of course not. Why? Because they were playing a totally different game. Africa was not trying to do what New York does with their art world. They have totally different scales, goals, people, and desires. Africa’s cultural sector may be supporting the arts but does so in a totally different way than New York or London. In my opinion it is because they have to, in fact every one has to. And that’s not a bad thing. Since when does one universal development plan work anyway? No country has the same population, circumstances, government, or even climate. All these things affect the production and circulation of art.
Finally when asked about where she envisioned the 1:54 fair going, and if she wanted it to eventually become a part of Frieze, she had a very clear answer. Her goal was never to create a fair of African artists that would eventually make the cut to get into Frieze. She wanted to grow a fair that would exist alongside of fairs like Frieze, a fair that would be a place for African artists to become incubated, not pulled into a larger art world scheme. In her mind, she loves Frieze, but not as the only appropriate fair model.
For a bit of time in London, the arts of the world were all brought within just miles of each other. Frieze London brought collectors who are building the artistic cannon of the future, and 1:54 was busy growing the potential cultural sector space for African artists. Two different models with one aim. The aim is to expose art and to unearth the ideas of today to do something with them (sometimes just talk about them, sometimes buy them). Either way, the question remains: how can we know, reveal, and think about it all? What can the art world do to be even more thorough in truly revealing as much artistic talent across the world as it can?