Expert Eye

1:54 Art Fair Director Touria El Glaoui on Why Collectors Should Look to Africa for New Art

1:54 Art Fair Director Touria El Glaoui on Why Collectors Should Look to Africa for New Art
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair director Touria El Glaoui (Photo by Chris Saunders)

You could say she was born into it. The daughter of an esteemed Moroccan modernist, Touria El Glaoui has heard the story of her father’s auspicious crossing with statesman and Sunday painter Winston Churchill since childhood. It goes: in 1943, her grandfather—the Pasha of Marrakech—hosted the British prime minister for dinner and asked him to appraise the deft brushwork of his son, Hassan El Glaoui. The artworks were somewhat concerning to the Pasha—art was no likely career for a Berber warrior tribesman. It took Churchill’s encouraging words to convince the him to send his talented son to art school in Paris.

Today, Touria El Glaoui—who as her day job used to work in business telecommunications—herself is ushering hundreds of African artists onto the international stage in the second edition of her contemporary African art fair, 1:54. Opening this Wednesday in London, the fair, features 27 galleries—11 from the continent—and will showcase over 100 artists from the across Africa and the diaspora in the lavish setting of Somerset House.

Amidst the last-minute bustle before the fair’s opening, El Glaoui spoke to Artspace about why she built this platform, and African art’s promising rise in the marketplace.

Let’s begin with the fair’s title, 1:54 that refers to the 54 heterogeneous countries constituting Africa. Walk us through how you conceived the idea for a fair seeking to represent art from across such a vast, diverse continent.

For the past two years, I have been working on what will probably be my lifetime project, the catalogue raisonné of my dad’s work. I had been studying the beginning of his career in France, when I realized that he was basically able to build a career because he had all this visibility very early on in the 1960s. And it was simply because he was in Paris; there was nothing happening in Morocco at the time. There was no art scene, no collectors, no auction houses, and no galleries to support him. The government had no initiatives with regards to the arts. Each country had their own collectors, but they did not collect anything other than art from their own country. Belonging to a collection in Africa isn’t the same thing as belonging to a collection of an international collector.

Meanwhile, I was also traveling around Africa for my other professional career that has nothing to do with art, and would see amazing pieces of work that—I wouldn’t say had never seen the light of day—but that were by artists whose names never reached beyond the borders of their country. It took me time to realize that this was because the platforms for artists just don’t exist there. As I was born into art because of my dad, I never worked in art, which are two very different things. So I had thought that there must be some platforms in Miami or in Paris, somewhere there would be business for the galleries. But to my surprise after doing market research, I found nothing.

I asked people in the industry: “Why?” Maybe it’s because Africa is such a big continent? Or maybe because often Africa is associated with poverty, danger, violence, and charity? People don’t think that there’s great art to be seen there? You never know. I think there are a bunch of variables that have impacted the lack of African artists internationally. It becomes a question of how to change those misconceptions. And, so, the idea just bloomed, and I started putting together a platform: finding a location and convincing galleries to take part in it.

It sounds like you’re after something broader than just commercial success with the fair.

We’re pretty much trying to figure out how to give African art production on the continent a voice. I think you’re completely fair in saying that it’s a huge continent. I tried to give it a name that indicates that we’re not talking about one big country, Africa. You never hear people talking about specific countries when talking about Africa, they say “Africa,” “Africa,” “Africa.” But it’s 54 countries! It’s the biggest continent on the planet. Honestly, we are very serious about showcasing as many perspectives from across the continent as possible, in terms of exhibitors and artists. But obviously we don’t have all the countries present.

Still, I was extremely pleased with how successful the first edition was. We had amazing press, and people were very curious about it, and the galleries did very well. So we’re fighting for a second year, which is what’s opening next Wednesday. I do believe that we have triggered very strong curiosity with the first edition of the fair, based on all the people who have decided to come see us again this year. I do believe that the interest is growing stronger and stronger.

And who is the fair’s audience?

The galleries tell me that the people visiting the fair are not their usual collectors, the niche collectors of contemporary African art. Last year, the curators of the most important museums came, as well as international collectors looking to expand their collection. And in addition to that, there were new African collectors coming as well. The same level of clients and guests as at other international art fairs was present here—there was no particular profile.

Do you think collectors are ready to support this emerging market? What do you make of the speculations that Africa has the potential to become a superheated market like China, India, or Brazil? 

I would prefer to describe the market as growing stably, rather than booming or trending. But I do believe that there is a high correlation between the economic growth of a country and the artists’ visibility. Right now, some African countries have the highest economic growth rate in the world, so I can imagine that the art market could act similarly to China or India. But in China, we saw a really strong boom because there were a large number of new collectors. In Africa, it is a bit different. The new collectors are scattered around the continent, so I do believe that instead of having one big mass of collectors from one country like China, we’ll actually first establish an international buying base in addition to a new group of collectors coming from different countries in Africa.

What regions and nations do you see holding the most promise for artists?

If you had to put one country leading the pack, it would have to be South Africa. Not only do you have a lot of good South African artists, you also have the future Museum of Contemporary African Art that will open in 2016 in Cape Town, a privately supported initiative by collector Jochen Zeitz. They are genuinely at a different stage—they already have two South African galleries as part of Frieze, for instance.

Then Nigeria would come in second because of the oil money in the country. In the past five years, people have been telling me about new galleries there that I should look into. I think you will see quite a few good things coming out of Nigeria.

As for Morocco, where I’m from, if I had to compare it to the rest of what I’ve seen in Africa, I’d say we are pretty much 15 years behind South Africa, in terms of museums, numbers of galleries, and the auction market. But I do believe they are doing quite well, and they have very strong artists already playing in the international circuit. Moroccan artists have already been part of international auction sales, for instance. And just today, they opened their National Contemporary Moroccan Museum, without the help of private funds—it’s a government initiative. However, because it didn’t have the funds to buy the collection for the museum, they partnered with the corporations and the artists to lend the artwork to the museum.

Would you say these unorthodox collaborations are typical?

Exactly, we don’t have one set model in Africa. Instead, we bridge the gaps faced locally. But that’s also exciting. For example, the Art Center of Dakar—where my program curator is the director—does public exhibitions while also promoting the artist outside of Dakar, and building an art library for students there. It suddenly has all these different functions, and it’s private but semi-public and receives grants from institutions. So there are fairly interesting new models that are working for Africa based on the condition there.

This is partly a concerted effort on the part of local curators and art professionals who want to disassociate themselves from Euro-American support and models, because of the colonialist associations. Organizations like C.C.A. Lagos, the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, and the Kuona Trust, for instance, aspire to make a local context for artists. What about 1:54?

Today, our platform is a requirement based on the fact that there is so little representation of African artists in any international fairs. Our platform is attempting to rebalance things. Simply put, there is not enough African art presented in international exhibitions and international fairs. But I also know that this model might have an expiration date. The day the balance is back, and you have as many African artists on the scene as any other artists, then maybe the mission of the fair is complete. But right now, by focusing on Africa in Europe, I am not locking us into any sort of Western model. I’m just rebalancing.

Here, we have had artists at the fair in their 80s who’ve been working for years, but without any museum exhibitions. If the world were justly balanced, the artist would have been included in an international exhibition like dOCUMENTA or Venice for a long time already. But they haven’t yet. Now they are present at the fair, and they can be discovered by an international audience. That all said, we are also considering doing a pop-up fair in Africa with panel discussions. It may not be the most commercial initiative, but we also have to find models that allow Africans to see their art.

How do your artists feel about the category ‘African’? Because of the limited number of nonprofits and workshops across the continent, there has been a healthy amount of cross-pollination: East Africans going to West Africa, South Africans traveling to residencies in the Sub-Saharan. Is there more Pan-Africanism spirit animating the art world? Or do you find artist suspicious of being slotted into this category?

There are quite mixed feeling, and being categorized as “African” is something present in all of our discussions. In Europe, an artist will want to be an artist first. They never call a European artist a European artist—that just doesn’t exist. So I do understand the sensitivities, and I think we are putting together quite an important platform to debate and talk about art production and where it’s coming from and how it’s being produced. And I think we are engaging the artists to talk about their worries about this categorization. But it really depends. A lot of them are very proud to be part of it, and a lot of established artists are part of this first generation of artists who worked really hard to get where they are, have had the chance to be in international exhibitions, and might not be very happy to be put back into a box. But at the same time, this is not the situation of most artists who have no visibility whatsoever.

I know that my dad doesn’t have any problem being labeled “African,” or “Moroccan,” for that matter. But I talk to other artists and they have a strong issue with it. But I will say that all the artists present in the fair are really keen to be there. The galleries usually have a huge discussion with the artist in terms of what it means to be here. No galleries are presenting their artist without their consent.

You’ve lived in London and New York. How would you compare the ways that artists participate in the broader culture, in say Morocco, as opposed to these capitals? Is the studio system, for instance, very different? What is the essential context a new collector needs to know?

I think being an artist anywhere is a courageous thing to be. But doing it in different places in Africa, where you have zero structure to support you, is probably even braver. You definitely have to have a strong entrepreneurial vision. Often artists there do not have academic training. There’s no university for the arts in a lot of these countries, so they are really influenced by their context.

The truth is that they will often have a vastly harder life, and choosing this path you have it even harder. It doesn’t hinder inspiration to be in an open-air setting rather than in a sophisticated studio. But I’ve also heard some very heart-moving stories about the wife of the artist having to travel four or five hours to get the brushes and paint, because they couldn’t find them in the village where they were from. Something that is very strong in Africa is the family unit. It might be much more difficult for artists because of the lack of government or private initiatives, but they have much more support from their social environment. The village life there is much more supportive family-wise, but also your neighbors.

Audiences in London will know images of Africa in the context of starvation, disease, and genocide. How do the artists you know about in the fair position themselves against this traditional political and historical context to offer a view of life that is less evident? Do you see commonalities in the way that artists have been approaching art in this year’s selection?

Art in general can always be used as a political tool, but I don’t think this is the agenda of the artist. They are usually fed by their context: what they live, where they live, the colors they can work with, the colors that they see. The political feel is not necessarily on purpose then—it’s more reflecting their surroundings.  

Do you yourself collect art?

I do collect, but I’m a very emotional collector. For example, last year, I bought a piece from an artist whom I adore, but it was also because he was the first artist mentioned in an article about the fair. Ransome Stanley, he’s amazing, Nigerian-born, but lives in Germany, and actually he was one of our most successful artists last year.

I don’t have such a big budget, so I buy what I can afford. Recently, that was a book by this Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode. You can’t believe that he died in 1989—his work has not aged one second. I was very touched so I bought a book, so that was my very small edition to my collection this year.

And I’m so excited for the fair again. Usually, I let the public choose first and I go the last day. Often what attracts me is what I love to see everyday. I don’t buy for speculation purposes. I buy it because I want to wake up next to the piece everyday, so if there is anything that is left that I really like, I go buy it then. Our artists wouldn’t make a living out of my collection though, that’s for sure. [Laughs]

Are there any artists you think collectors should keep an eye on?

What’s amazing here is that any new buyers can actually buy the art in an emerging market. Sometimes the artists are only established in their country, so their pieces are very affordable. And it is really nice to follow the career of the artist. Some of the artists are very young and they are going to be on the market for quite a long time.

I don’t usually give specific recommendation. But I can name a few based in New York. You are very lucky to have Marcia Kure there, who is Nigerian. Then Ouattara Watts was part of the generation of Basquiat and is just like one of our modern masters. I met Ouatarra in Paris, and Marcia in Dakar—I’m always so excited to meet the artist. It must be because I’m the daughter of an artist. I’m just such a fan, posing in pictures with them.

The artist comes first at the fair. Is this because of your particular family background? 

Well, it was quite an amazing house to grow up in, and I am very familiar with the life of an artist. And it has been a huge advantage in understanding the industry from the artist’s point of view and shaped my understanding of the importance of the artist’s visibility. Today, I always have the artist on my mind. For example, I’m trying to make the fair guide into a real reference book with the artist biographies and exhibition list, because of my own experience working on my dad’s catalogue raisonné. So we do things from the artist’s perspective, and I’m pushing for them, because I have lived this once already with my dad. 


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