Koyo Kouoh on her 5 editions of 1:54 art fair / Interview Elise Atangana

« An art work is the artist’s declaration of love to his or her environment. Personally, this immaterial space really interests me, both as a curator and as a person who thrives on artistic production and who works to promote, conserve and analyze it. »

– Koyo Kouoh, August 2017

Koyo Kouoh by Deirdre Power

1:54, fifth edition – Interview with Koyo Kouoh, artistic director and curator of the Contemporary African Art Fair  & Forum

August 2017 

To what degree has your experience at the RAW Material Company art center nourished your involvement in the fair? Touria El Glaoui was behind the creation of the fair. When she told me about her idea for a specialized contemporary African art fair in London, she totally convinced me of the need for such an event. Discussions began in early 2012, and the first edition was held in October 2013. I’d already launched the RAW Material Company initiative in 2008 and opened the center in 2011. At that time, I noticed that in general, the people involved in this scene had, from a critical point of view, already accomplished a whole host of important initiatives in terms of exhibiting and reflection, but that commercial recognition was still lacking. I didn’t have the means, the possibilities, or the desire to undertake such an enterprise. Touria [El Glaoui] is an amazing person. Her dynamism and great sagacity in the business world were an asset to her skills in developing this kind of project. I don’t have that aptitude at all. But, my experience and reputation did lend credibility, and contributed to the founding of this project. 

What were you determined to do, and what hurdles did the project face? When I take on a project I believe in, nothing can stop me, be it hurdles or naysayers. The entire management team was convinced that the fair would be a success, and, for that matter, it has grown significantly since. This initiative has opened up new avenues in a format and an art scene that hadn’t been explored on this scale before. 

Since the launching of the fair and our debates in 2013 until now, in 2017, four years have passed and we’ve held four editions in London, three in New York, and soon one in Marrakech. These events have created emulation and other actors have launched similar projects. For us, it’s a great dynamic and a source of satisfaction. We totally believed in it. An initiative of this kind was lacking and was hoped for in the profession. Today, 1:54 is an established event and a recognized brand.

We have, of course, received a lot of reactions—more positive than negative. Just for the record, when we began, a certain number of professionals didn’t want to come to the fair. They feared they’d be shut in a ‘ghetto’. Seeing the quality, stylishness and professionalism of the event, these same professionals now rush to take part. That’s a source of real pride.

What’s imperative is unwavering implication. We have to believe in what we do and of course stay up-to-date with what’s going on in our professional environment. We fully know the functioning of the fair and its perspectives. It’s not a job, it’s a commitment. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm. Our team has multiple, complementary competences. That’s what comprises the magic of 1:54: there’s no competitiveness. Everyone is at their post and does what needs to be done. 

Virginia Chihota « Ndiri Mukadzi nhai », 2012 ( 1:54, 2013 )

How do you draw up the selection and program of the fair?
What form does your curating take? 
First of all, I don’t really believe in the notion of curating for a fair, especially a niche fair like 1:54. What the artistic direction can do is control the quality, because you have to bear in mind that the participating galleries are all taking a lot of risks. In this respect, it is hard to impose constraining curatorial formats on them. Representing African artists on a commercial platform still involves uncertainties, such as the lack of a large base of private and institutional collectors or simply occasional buyers. Running a gallery, depending on one’s promotions and sales, be it in London, New York, Paris, Dakar or Johannesburg, involves huge costs if you work professionally, as an established entity, with competent staff. Generally, the public often thinks that galleries are financially sustainable. That’s not the case the world over, and especially not in Africa. The successive waves of gallery closures speak volumes about this market. Only the ‘blue chip’ galleries can really make it in the long-run. 

As an artistic director, the other very important aspect of my work consists in not having to handle the logistical part. To me, it’s necessary to avoid all direct relations with the galleries and artists. The program is based on the quality of the proposals received. It has to remain objective and transparent in order to avoid any kind of contestation. 

Right from the start of this beautiful adventure, what mattered most to me was the existence of a space for debating ideas, for reflection and discussion. The Forum was born out of this desire; that is, a work and proposal platform in the continuity of what we do at RAW Material Company. It’s also a place where we think, debate and discuss artistic practice, its role, its place in society, its relationship to the economy, to the sciences, to the world, history and ideas. 

Jems Koko Bi, « Passengers », 2012 ( 1:54 art fair, 2015 )

What was your vision for this Forum? The Forum is another way of continuing the conversation about art. Art goes well beyond the object or the events that it proposes, whether performative or in exhibition form. I think that artistic practice or production is above all a state of mind, a reflection, a vision of the world, a relation to one’s environment, a desire for sharing and proposing.

An art work is the artist’s declaration of love to his or her environment. Personally, this immaterial space really interests me, both as a curator and as a person who thrives on artistic production and who works to promote, conserve and analyze it. 

Debates about art are extremely important in a context like that of a fair, as they contribute to a better understanding of what is on show, and thus give access to the people behind the works. The format of the Forum always remains focused on a central reflective theme that underscores the different debates. 

For this 2017 edition, we’re looking at ‘conversations’ as artistic matter. What is the conversation around art? What does it contribute? How do we construct it? What’s its role in the development of artistic and critical analysis?

In previous editions, we discussed the production of black British artists, with the participation of major personalities, such as John Akomfrah. In the US, we also debated black subjectivity and its manifestations in artistic production. We also broached the question of the unity of the continent in the light of its different geographic, linguistic and political divisions. 

The formats proposed include keynote speeches, inviting a professional from the field of the theme explored to intervene. The fair also proposes panels and one-on-one formats, or, in other words, conversations with an artist with a focus on his or her practice. For the interested public and exhibition visitors, these spaces to meet and reflect really contribute to a better understanding of this sector. For me, it’s really important to have these moments to meet and exchange. 

What’s new in the artistic program of projects at the 2017 London edition? The fair takes place in Somerset House, a very beautiful, emblematic space. It would be a shame not to use this setting to spectacular and striking ends. Last year, we started working with the courtyard, where Zak Ové created a magnificent installation. This year, Pascale Marthine Tayou is presenting Summer Surprise, a stunning installation specially designed for the courtyard.  

The fair is also putting on a program of films which deserve greater exposure, and a new program of performances has been initiated this year. We are also beginning to work with sound design artists. For this first collaboration, Emeka Ogboh is presenting a sound installation specially designed for 1:54. Finally, forty-two galleries from seventeen countries are presenting the works of 130 artists.

Our aim is to show the multiplicity of practices and not to limit ourselves to the fair format which, in itself, if we remained obsequious to it, wouldn’t allow certain initiatives. We’re trying to broaden possibilities and present a wide-ranging diversity of artistic productions from Africa and the diaspora. 

Another anecdote: in 2013, the first year, we only had one wing of the building and fifteen galleries. As the fair is scheduled in the same week as the Frieze Art Fair, most of the art world is present in London. From the start, visitors would leave Frieze and come to visit us, and then went back to Frieze to tell other visitors to come and discover 1:54. That still happens.

Jackie Karuti, « Cosmic Intercourse with everything  » ( 1:54 art fair, 2017 )

New York was the first leg of the fair’s expansion. What are the particularities of that territory? We have always considered ourselves an Afro-diasporic fair, even if our name doesn’t explicitly indicate so. The spirit of the fair has always been Africa and the African diaspora. The United States, and New York in particular, were naturally in our minds and in our sights. It was obvious to us that we should be present there. We just had to find the best timing and the ideal space. The New York edition is a kind of boutique fair that draws a big crowd and is also continuing to develop. We’ve held three editions in New York. The fair is garnering more and more attention and respect.  

In the US, the vast African-American base represents an almost natural link with the fair. That being said, we haven’t yet reached a stage where a sufficient number of American galleries participate to represent it satisfactorily. However, a certain number of African-American artists are represented in the galleries present at the New York fair, notably Derrick Adams and Lavar Munroe, who are big on the market at the moment.

At the same time, the Forum is completely conceived of in collaboration with the African-American intellectual scene. We have organized discussions around international black subjectivity, the notion of blackness, trans-generational transmission between African-American artists, politics and art, among other things.

It almost goes without saying: Africa is the matrix of all black people, whether Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, African, Afro-European, or Afro-Asian. The matrix is always Africa. The recent events in Charlottesville prove so yet again. However brilliant he or she may be, any black person who does not integrate the fact of being perceived and judged by what Africa is at time T cannot entirely grasp their identity. These conversations with the African-American world—held over two days, and not three like in London—are therefore important, or even essential, in the Forum program. This space helps continue this debate with a view to convergence, to union. 

And in 2018, Marrakech. Naturally, Africa is a territory of predilection for 1:54. We thought long and hard and everything pointed us to Marrakech. We studied different possibilities and visited sites, but kept coming back to the choice of Marrakech. It’s a popular destination where everyone wants to go. A host of parameters were in favor of this city, like the presence of a biennale and an interesting institutional landscape. What’s more, Touria [El Glaoui] is Moroccan, which has significantly facilitated this new launch. Two other destinations are also in gestation and are part of this reflection about Africa and its diaspora. 

1:54’s guiding principal is one of intercontinental platforms, which make it possible to articulate new fields of knowledge and exchange. In the profession, whether it’s in Africa or elsewhere, people often complain that they don’t get enough exposure to art. We create events to correct that state of affairs. 

Seeing the continent in a unitary manner doesn’t necessarily undermine the diversity or multiplicity of its societies and peoples, but rather generates strength. To me, saying “I’m African” gives me more force that saying “I’m Cameroonian.” Speaking of Africa in terms of unity is like equipping oneself with a kind of army—I deliberately use a military term—because this is still a combat. That doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of diversity, multiplicity, or nuance. The relationship to Africa that we advocate is above all a matter of distancing ourselves from any hint of nationalism. 

It seems important to me to create this connection with the entire diaspora in Europe and the one, which is considerable too, in North and South America. What matters to me is to understand the important ties that exist within black reality, for, due to our history, this reality is highly specific. 

How do you consider the future of the contemporary African and diasporic scene in world art? I believe that the future lies at home [in Africa, Editor’s Note]. The Americans use the word ‘frontier,’ that is, a site of new challenges and new spaces to conquer. The art world has always undergone this kind of phenomenon, cyclically. 

The 1980s and 1990s, the Revue Noire and NKA era, with Simon Njami, Okwui Enwezor, Olu Oguibe and Salah Hassan, was a kind of first post-1966 FESMAN, post-FESTAC opening. The second wave came with the proliferation of art spaces in the early 2000s. Now, we have moved onto something else, with the big fairs and big productions. I think that all of these actions are going to continue to become more structured. The major Zeitz MOCAA museum, which has just opened in Cape Town this September, will also change things. More and more professional collections are being created. The one I’m currently setting up for a young African collector also contributes to this wave. I’m optimistic on all fronts: criticism, the market, institutions and independence. There is so much energy and intelligence involved that the situation can only improve, with or without the help of our States. Until now, we’ve done everything without the backing of our governments, as they are always behind. When I observe the determination of actors in Africa, whichever the society, it is the one source of hope and satisfaction. 

Why? Above all because art is a space of proposal. Reflection, things pertaining to the mind and spirit and creativity are spaces of free proposals. Art is the site of imaginative power, without which any society is destined to fail. These sites of confrontation, of fusion, of exchange are at the heart of social, political and economic transformation. In Africa and elsewhere, it’s the creative space that makes us dream and advance. And this is particularly necessary in Africa, where we’re still in the throes of the decolonization process, which will take a long time. The artistic sphere is a space of fecund imagination, and it’s amazing!

What has marked you most on the 1:54 journey? And what are your future projects? Above all, my greatest satisfaction remains having brought certain artists and certain galleries to the public eye. We have also contributed to the professionalization of the sector, notably by structuring and strengthening the relationship between galleries and artists. 

As for my future projects, let me give you a scoop. I’ve brought the fair to a point where it can continue without me. I’ll be leaving the fair after this edition, as it’s time to let other people take their turn. Other projects are calling me. I like to launch initiatives that succeed, then to stand aside so that other talented players can inject new blood. My departure was always planned after the fifth edition. Five years were needed to stabilize the fair. I’m delighted to have met this objective. I’m going to devote myself entirely to RAW Material Company, to international curating and to this new collection, which is very dear to me. 

In something we Africans got issue 2
French version included in the copy
Elise Atangana
August 2017