Nice & Slow (the rhythm), 2017
Image: Ndidi Emefiele

Two growing art fairs dedicated to Africa are both founded by women from the continent who have a business background.

Nigeria’s Tokini Peterside, who established Art X Lagos in 2016 in the city it is named after, started her career in business and strategy for the culture and leisure sector.

Morocco’s Touria El Glaoui, who launched 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in 2013, is the daughter of an artist father, Hassan El Glaoui, but found her feet in the banking industry as a wealth management consultant before diving into art.

She now runs annual editions of 1-54 in Marrakech, New York, and London, with the next fair scheduled for the latter city from 4 to 7 October.

Between these two fairs, artists from across the continent and the African diaspora have gained exposure to collectors, with various institutions making shopping trips through its doors, as well as increasing public interest.

Their business models vary though: Peterside is curating a bespoke event that this year will feature only 18 galleries inside the Lagos civic centre from 2 to 4 November. El Glaoui has adopted a go-big-or-stay-home approach, resulting in an extensive gallery list at 1-54.

Touria El Glaoui of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
Touria El Glaoui of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
Image: Javier Salas
Tokini Peterside of Art X Lagos.
Tokini Peterside of Art X Lagos.
Image: Supplied

Peterside says she has taken gradual steps into the art world and launched her fair with the premise of fixing a “disconnect between the vibrancy of the art sector and markets”.

“My agenda was to problem-solve, to look at the arts and culture sector and understand ways in which it could be enhanced; to look at ways in which the sector could grow,” Peterside says. “There are hundreds of local artists who have a core audience and collectors, but who are not known to the general public. My aim was to open art to a bigger audience.”

Art X Lagos is experiencing rapid growth as locals are responding favourably, she adds. “The Lagos art scene is vibrant. We have a lot of hybrid entities that curate shows throughout the year. These are pop-up dealers and galleries. They are doing very well. But they operate on a different format.

“If you were to spend a week in Lagos would find the number of permanent galleries in Lagos are not many,” Peterside says. “We curate a selection of Nigeria’s and Africa’s best galleries. Our strategy is not to become a 100-booth art fair. We want to focus on a highly curated experience that you can consume in its entirety.

“Other art fairs can exhaust you. At our art fair you can see everything and have a conversation with every gallery. Our collectors want a boutique experience and want to be sure of the quality that is likely to come through and can experience it in its entirety.”

El Glaoui talks about how she filled a market gap after she “grew up surrounded by art and always witnessed amazing work being made across the continent when I travelled”.

“But I would never see any of this being shown and appreciated in Europe, the US, or further afield,” she says. “1-54 grew out of this need for a platform that presented and supported art and artists from Africa and its diaspora.

“Over the last six years we have built a strong international network, but also encouraged public involvement in all of the three cities we work in. For our inaugural edition in Marrakech last year we ensured events were run across the city with multiple institutions that have different audiences and spaces.”

El Glaoui says at her first edition in London in 2013 there were 17 galleries and about 80 artists in a single wing of Somerset House.

“We had about 6 000 visitors that year,” she says. “For this upcoming London edition we will have 43 galleries, 11 of which are exhibiting for the first time, hailing from 20 countries and more than 130 artists.

“The number of visitors we receive has grown too. For our London edition last year we had about 17,000 visitors. We expect a similar number for this upcoming London edition.”

El Glaoui adds: “In terms of sales that come out of each fair, it is always tricky to tell. In terms of numbers, perhaps the value of the works is the best indicator. Works valued at £1,000 to £5,000 bracket in our first edition are now valued at about the £20,000 bracket.”

Peterside says her attempt to feature fewer galleries for a bespoke experience has not deterred visitor numbers. “We had 5 000 people attend our first edition. That was a number we could cope with. At the second edition we had 9 000 people over three days. We hadn’t expected such a major jump and we weren’t ready for it,” she says.

“We have introduced a small entry fee, which is just more than a token fee, so that the fair continues to be accessible.”

Ça va aller, 2016
Image: Joana Choumali
Artist, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami
Dance of Many Hands, 2017 Artist, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami
Image: Tybrn Gallery

There is room for audience growth though, as Peterside says the art fair venue has “capacity for 20 000 people to come to the art fair”.

“There is a lot of work that can be done to grow the local audience. We want more local audiences,” she says.

The list of collectors visiting Art X Lagos is also growing. “The audience base is 80% Nigerian and neighbouring countries, but we are getting collectors from Europe and the US who want to attend our fair,” Peterside says. “We’ve had the Smithsonian, Tate Modern and Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa come through. We are gradually building our relationship with the international community. It has been a challenge because we are not in London or any of the other capitals and we are new. We have a network of ambassadors who do outreach for us to collectors.”

While Peterside works with a predominantly local audience, El Glaoui is looking outward and showing Africa to people who may step closer expecting stereotypes or derivative narratives.

“Perceptions around aesthetics and art from Africa and its diaspora are slowly changing, but that is not to say that preconceived notions are behind us. There is still a long way to go in terms of diversifying institutions and canon,” El Glaoui says. “It was really important to me that 1-54 became a nucleus for impactful and engaging discussion that could expand the discourse and interest in artists from Africa and its diaspora in a positive way.

“It was from this that we started Forum, a platform of curated talks, performances, and films for a politically andculturally relevant programme that hopes to support cross-disciplinary discussions that are important to fostering art,artists and academics from Africa and its diaspora,” El Glaoui says.

“It goes without saying that having an inclusive and diverse fair is important,” she notes. “We can never represent all 54 African countries at every edition, but we hope that by promoting the wealth of diversity and creativity from Africa and its diaspora we can encourage people to explore everything that is being created with openness.”

- From the September edition of Wanted magazine.

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