Portrait of Touria El Glaoui, 2021. Photo by Jim Winslet. Courtesy of 1-54.
Sahara Longe, installation view of Edwina, 2020, at 1-54 London, 2021. Photo by Jim Winslet. Courtesy of 1-54.
This week, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair celebrates the 10th anniversary of its London edition. Touria El Glaoui founded the fair in 2013, aiming to share her love for Africa’s bustling cultural scene with a broader public. Her own trajectory mirrors that of 1-54: gradually establishing connections around the world, figuring out year by year how to better aid artists and galleries across the continent.
El Glaoui was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and she brings a unique cultural and occupational background to her position as the fair’s director. Her father is the figurative painter Hassan El Glauoi, one of Morocco’s most renowned artists who is best known for his portrayals of fantasia horsemen.
Installation view of 1-54 London at Somerset House, 2018. Photo by Katrina Sorrentino. Courtesy of 1-54.
While El Glaoui was always curious about art, her career actually started in finance. She graduated with an MBA in strategic management at Pace University in New York in 1996, then worked in banking, finance, and wealth management. Yet El Glaoui did not enjoy her roles in the industry. She soon moved to London, joining a telecom company that, she said, was “chasing different telecom licenses around the Middle East and Africa.” She subsequently relocated to Morocco, working a regional sales tech role for Cisco systems that focused on Africa.
Through this job, El Glaoui gained exposure to the continent. She considers her learnings from this era to be foundational to her work as the director of 1-54. “It was the best experience of my professional life when I discovered Africa for seven years,” El Glaoui said. “I loved using my free time to discover art and go to places I hadn’t gone before.” She traveled around Africa—throughout Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco, Tanzania, and Kenya—for conferences and presentations. This was a crucial education for her: She said that when you’re raised in Morocco, your parents and your education guide you towards Europe and America, and away from Africa.
El Glaoui was inspired by all the “wonderful and talented people” she met throughout her journeys. These interactions motivated her to shift to the arts. She began curating exhibitions of her father’s works in Marrakech and London.
As she integrated into the African art world, El Glaoui discovered two major issues throughout the continent: Gallerists had trouble selling locally due to a weak collector base, and they lacked access to the European and American markets.
El Glaoui set out to solve these problems, and she started small—by researching the industry. She wondered if perhaps others had already tried to establish platforms for working with regional artists, and had failed. Why hadn’t she heard about any efforts? “I tried to figure out why this whole geography was ignored,” she said.
Zak Ové, installation view of Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness, 2016, at 1-54 London at Somerset House, 2016. Photo by Victor Raison. Courtesy of 1-54.
She then made it her mission to generate such a platform and fill the gap—“nothing was there,” she recalled. Acknowledging that she had much more to learn, she continued to research the market, trying to understand why African artists had such little influence in other parts of the world.
El Glaoui realized that there was “no access, no information, visibility, or voice” for such artists, and decided to establish the 1-54 art fair in order to “rebalance inclusion.” She named the endeavor “1-54” to honor the 54 countries across the single continent that the fair would support. “1-54 has been instrumental in pushing how artists from the continent are appreciated in the art market,” she said.
Originally, El Glaoui wanted 1-54 to rotate its editions around different African countries. Yet interested galleries shared that they really wanted access to international markets, so El Glaoui launched her program in London in 2013. Without much of a marketing budget, she relied on word of mouth for publicity.
The fair was a hit: All participating galleries sold every artwork they’d brought. Eager, disgruntled collectors asked how 1-54 could call itself a fair when there was so little work. The following year, 1-54 doubled its size, and it’s had increased attendance ever since. 1-54 opened its New York edition in 2015, then its Marrakech edition in 2018.
These openings were major turning points for the fair: 1-54 was no longer just “the African art fair” that took place during Frieze week in London. The New York edition proved that there was a big market for contemporary African art in the United States.
“It was important to be seen as an international fair and brand,” El Glaoui said. Yet the fair’s proudest moment was going back to Africa, with its Morocco edition. Some artists were especially excited to participate here and only wanted to show on the continent.
Installation view of 1-54 London at Somerset House, 2017. Photo by Katrina Sorrentino. Courtesy of 1-54.
While El Glaoui is proud of how 1-54 has promoted and increased visibility for contemporary African art, she also makes it clear that her work is hardly finished. She still wants to expand its place within the global art market. El Glaoui mentioned that the art market analysis firm ArtTactic recently discovered that from 2018 to 2019, the total sales for African artists across an international list of auctions were lower than those of the total art sales across Romania.
“I hope that people understand that the journey is long and we have to continue to pursue it and make sure African art is part of the global art ecosystem,” El Glaoui said. She hopes that in the future, galleries and institutions around the world will increase the number of African artists in their programs.
El Glaoui also wants 1-54 to have real staying power. Though the fair is still relatively small—its largest edition included 50 galleries, while Frieze has featured 300—it aims for diverse programs that vary year to year.
Lakwena Maciver, installation view of I’ll Bring You Flowers, 2021, in 1-54 at Somerset House, 2021. Photo by Jim Winslet. Courtesy of 1-54.
“If you show people the same thing, they will remember you, they will think that they’ve seen it the year before,” she said. The 1-54 selection committee ensures that the editions also vary widely from Marrakech to London to New York. The roving fair always considers its particular regional audience.
1-54 has received its share of criticism for not exhibiting what audiences want to see. “For example, when we were in New York, showcasing conceptual art was not the most popular. People were more excited seeing figurative paintings,” El Glaoui said. The fair received derogatory comments such as “This doesn’t look African”—audiences expected African art to be a monolith, despite the enormity of the continent and the diversity within it.
Though 1-54 wants visitors to enjoy the fairs, El Glaoui also wants to make it a platform for discovery. Some of the fair’s artists, such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, have been with the fair for the last 10 years and become popular and established, moving on to bigger galleries and exhibitions around the world. El Glaoui said that many artists who have shown with 1-54 share that having the fair in their CV was life-changing, providing them opportunities to be picked up by galleries and noticed by larger audiences.
1-54 also maintains an impactful publishing arm: For 10 years, it has referenced its artists in edition catalogues and via its online archive. “For a lot of artists, our books were their first publication. They had their work in the book alongside their biography,” El Glaoui said. She noted that times are changing as artists’ visibility on social media becomes as important as having a gallery.
“When you’re in the continent, [social media] is your first viewing from a gallery perspective as well as a collector perspective,” she said. The lockdown further pushed collectors online. As the landscape continues to change, the fair keeps evolving, staying relevant and attuned to artists’ needs.
El Glaoui believes that 1-54 is changing people’s perceptions of African diasporic art and generating greater appreciation of African art at large. “We provide international visibility and access. Without access, you can’t buy the art,” El Glaoui emphasized. She has also launched 1-54 FORUM, the fair’s educational program of presentations and talks, which teach audiences about African art and challenge misconceptions about the contemporary art scene on the continent.
Installation view of 1-54 London at Somerset House, 2021. Photo by Jim Winslet. Courtesy of 1-54.
1-54 has also launched successful partnerships with artists, curators, collectors, external consultants like PR companies, and institutions such as the Arts Council and Christie’s. Their relationship with Christie’s began in 2013, when the auction house supported the fair financially and helped with 1-54 FORUM. Christie’s also provided space for 1-54 when the fair’s 2020 edition was held at Somerset House, and hosted the fair’s pop-up editions in Paris during the pandemic. The auction house, said El Glaoui, wanted to see 1-54 survive.
El Glaoui has also formed organic relationships with other cultural tastemakers like British Ghanaian curator, writer, and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, who has worked as a program curator and speaker with the fair during its shows at the Somerset House.
Maintaining a diverse group of curators and artists is crucial to El Glaoui’s work. When she began doing interviews about 1-54, she noticed that media coverage focused on the same few African artists who are already prevalent in the press. The media did not have the knowledge, or hadn’t researched closely enough, to reference anyone else.
Installation view of 1-54 London at Somerset House, 2019. Photo by Katrina Sorrentino. Courtesy of 1-54.
El Glaoui points the media in new directions and offers journalists, curators, and educators information about what’s happening across the continent. “I’m glad to do it because I think there are so many resources that still need to be brought to light,” she said.
El Glaoui believes that her success is due, in large part, to hearing about her father’s challenges as an artist. She knew there was a lot of room for development, and she was ready to face criticism as she figured out how to launch, then improve, her platform.
El Glaoui’s proudest moment to date happened earlier this year, when the fair was invited as an institution to Benin to celebrate the return of looted artifacts to the country. “They recognized the work that 1-54 does,” El Glaoui said.
In the future, El Glaoui aims to expand the fair to new locales—perhaps somewhere in Asia. “The market is turning that way as well and there’s an audience that showed interest in the past year,” she said. “If you want to reach a community or collector base you have to go towards that.” She’s also looking into opening another 1-54 on the continent—perhaps somewhere in West Africa, such as Abidjan. Despite her global ambitions, her goal remains intimate: to find “the right model and create something that will have an impact locally.”
Thumbnail: Portrait of Touria El Glaoui, 2021. Photo by Jim Winslet. Courtesy of 1-54.