In Conversation with Touria El Glaoui

In Conversation with Touria El Glaoui

Touria El Glaoui is the founding director of 1:54 Contemporary African Art FairHeld annually in London, New York and Marrakech, it is a sustainable platform dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and her diaspora. She holds an MBA in strategic management and international business from Pace University, New York and began her career in the banking sector as a wealth management consultant before moving to London in 2001. Here, she assumed various business development positions in the telecom/IT industry before founding the fair in October 2013. She has also organised and co-curated significant exhibitions of her father’s work, Hassan El Glaoui, one of Morocco’s most celebrated artists including A Major Retrospective in Casablanca and Meetings in Marrakech, a joint exhibition featuring Winston Churchill’s paintings, hosted at Leighton House in London and La Mamounia in Marrakech, as part of the 2014 Marrakech Biennale.

The cancellation of this year’s 1-54 at Marrakech gave birth to the Paris edition in collaboration with Christie’s. Please tell us more about this partnership; is it permanent or a temporary fill-in for the Marrakech edition, and what challenges did you have to overcome?

The Paris edition started as a one-off edition, which materialised from an opportunity Christie’s kindly offered us. This allowed us to produce a fair, and therefore support our galleries and artists when we couldn’t do as we normally would in Marrakech. The constantly changing COVID-19 regulations were certainly our biggest challenges. Communication and collaboration on all sides were also vital to reacting quickly and making sure the fair was safe for all under the circumstances.

How did artists, galleries, collectors and the general public react, and how would you compare their response to the reception to the Marrakech, London, and New York editions?

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. We have received a lot of requests to make the Paris edition a regular addition in the 1-54 calendar. It was quite a different fair given that we partnered with Christie’s and it was taking place during a pandemic. It was also smaller than our permanent iterations in Marrakech, London and New York but despite the differences, everyone was excited about being able to present or see art in real life.

In comparison to the other editions, how would you evaluate 1-54 Paris?

Like all our editions, we evaluate their success based on sales, as well as broader visitor engagement. The sales were incredibly positive, both in the physical space and on the online platform. As we were in a new locality, the edition also introduced our galleries to new collectors. So, hopefully, the fair has not only been a commercial success but allowed galleries to spark relationships with new collectors, patrons and institutions that will be mutually beneficial in the long term. Like our last edition in London, our time-slot system and one-way path through the fair were well received and beneficial for galleries and visitors alike. It gave everyone the time and attention they needed to view and discuss the work being shown.

In your opinion, what new artistic visual languages, curatorial thrusts, and collecting habits have emerged amidst the pandemic?

It is clear that even if a collector is in tune with buying online, they are unlikely to buy the work of an artist they have not seen in person over the Internet. So, we’re seeing fewer emerging artists’ work being collected. Hopefully, as the world opens up again and normal operations resume, collectors will again expand their collections to include new artists.

Regarding curation and visual language, this is difficult to speak on as we’re only just seeing cultural spaces and actors get on their feet and receive funding to undertake programming in these difficult times. COVID has impacted so many parts of the arts ecosystem, from educational, residential, gallery, and institutional programming to access to artist materials (and this is, of course, all on top of the impact the pandemic has had on everyone’s personal lives), so we will undoubtedly see new artistic visual languages and curatorial directions. However, I think we are still deep in the pandemic that we cannot pinpoint where these new directions are or where they are headed.

Would you concur that today, collecting art is most popular with a young demographic; what trends have you observed amongst the millennials and how has social media played a role in this development?

I wouldn’t say collecting art is most popular with a young demographic, as we do have many established collectors buying work at the fair. But we have seen a younger demographic collecting work and changing the art market landscape with their more fluid and diverse approaches. Social media has played a role in this as it has made the arts, on every level, more accessible.

How were you able to integrate online participation by galleries into the physical fair, and what other innovative digital strategies are you developing in promoting your platform?

We don’t view the online and physical fair as separate entities. An online presence has always been important to us, so when the pandemic struck, we took our existing processes and content and established a collaboration with Christie’s that resulted in an online platform that was not only easy to navigate but encouraged collectors to purchase works or reach out to galleries. Christie’s has been good at making our collaborative visions a reality. The fair was also on Artsy and our 1-54 App (available on Google Play Store and the Apple Store), as well as on our website.

Physical fairs are bound to return someday regularly, what would be the fate of the online editions, and in future would you consider an online option to run alongside your physical edition?

We will likely continue to have an online platform during the fair because it has meant that we have been able to continuously engage with our global collectors year-round, not just during their local iteration. For example, most of the work bought through the online platform during the Paris fair was bought by US collectors. Usually, we would have only been able to engage with those collectors in person at the New York fair.

Following the pandemic, physical operations in the art sector have been adversely affected to necessitate mass migration to the digital environment. What predictions can you make about the future of contemporary African art?

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, I have high hopes for the art sector. Over the last year, we’ve seen several galleries establish new spaces, for example, Gallery 1957 (Accra, Ghana) and Addis Fine Art (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) have both established new spaces in London. Likewise, we’re seeing prices continue to slowly rise as interest in contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora has not faltered but only grown.

You are keen on the influence of art in changing negative narratives. During your TED Talk in 2017, you mentioned how you loved the work of an artist, which challenges stereotypes and clichés in the representation of Muslim Arabic women. How have you used your platform to address this pertinent issue in Africa and her related diaspora?

Since the founding of 1-54, one of its key facets has been to challenge the stereotypes and negative narratives surrounding art from Africa and its diaspora. We’re committed to promoting artists that have been historically isolated to the periphery, so we have to take an active role in challenging misconceptions about art from Africa. This we have done through a number of channels, however, our 1-54 Forum programme takes centre stage here. 1-54 Forum is our curated public programme of panel discussions, artist talks, screenings and other interventions that strive to make accessible knowledge produced by and pertaining to creativity and creatives on the continent. Our recent programme, which took place over the Paris fair and ran through February, was curated by an independent art space in Marrakech called LE 18. Conversations during the programme explored the use of vernacular photography by artists, to the cinema scene in Morocco and the use of radio in liberation struggles in Algeria. 1-54 Forum accompanies every fair and recordings of all events are now also available on all major podcast platforms.



Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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