1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair: Through the Lens

1:54’s four-day contemporary African art takeover of Somerset House was marked by Zak Ove’s army of ‘Invisible Men’ sculptures standing sentry in the courtyard. However, despite the striking success of this imposing site-specific piece, as well as the vast array of creative mediums on show at the fair, it was photography that stood out with renowned artists such as the late Malik Sidibé and Gideon Mendel catching the eye.

The Sidibé exhibition marks the first major British retrospective of the celebrated Malian photographer’s work, with selections spanning his career. The intimate and spontaneous shots of Nightlife in Bamako, in which Sidibé captures the city’s stylishly dressed youth at play, perfectly illustrate his method in the 1960’s of acting as an almost invisible presence, and it is for this that he was later nicknamed ‘The Eye of Bamako’. Wandering into the next room, the work becomes more and more choreographed, with the subjects posturing with intent on various shoots around the Niger Delta. Finally, reaching his later work, the fact that Sidibé rose to fame and fortune late in his career becomes patently obvious, as the work switches to images of Mali’s young professionals who approached him in the 1990’s for planned shoots which reflected their status and style. Sidibé’s uncanny ability to inject a similar (and intense) level of drama into all of his work, choreographed or not, shows his skill and versatility in photographing both nature and melodrama in the young people of Mali for over half a century.

Moving swiftly from the capricious to the sombre, another moving exhibition was that of South African photographer Gideon Mendel, whose work documents the human impact of globalisation, climate change and disaster. “While many artists would shoot the melting ice caps, Mendel looks to capture the everyday scenes”, the gallery assistant explains, and the Floodlines series is a perfect example of this. For this, Mendel photographed household scenes across the continent (and the world) following flooding, and watermarks star equally with ruined windows, paintings and doorways. Another piece was motivated by the refugees in the Calais jungle refusing to be photographed; by collecting and assorting used toothbrushes from the ground in the camp, Mendel found an alternative method of documenting the events here. Both of these pieces bring home the human aspect of world tragedy, and Mendel’s Axis Gallery exhibition is both wonderfully creative, aesthetically stunning and deeply affecting.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair runs from October 6-9 at Somerset House, London. 1-54.com/london/

Malick Sidibé, Combat des amis avec pierres, 1976
Malick Sidibé, Les jeunes bergers peulhs, 1972
Malick Sidibé, A la plage, 1974
Malick Sidibé, A moi seul, 1978
Gideon Mendel Garage at Tim Skelton’s apartment, York, UK. Floodlines Series, from the Drowning World Project. Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive. 27 1/2” x 27 1/2 / 70cm x 70cm Ed: 3 + 1 AP. Courtesy the artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ
Gideon Mendel Victor and Hope America, Igbogene, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. November 2012 SubmergedPortrait from the Drowning World Project Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive. 48” x 48” / 122cm x 122cm Ed: 3 + 1 AP. Courtesy the artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ
Gideon Mendel Damage: ‘Amandla’ (Power) salute at a political funeral. Atteridgeville, South Africa, 1985. Giclée print on Hahnemüle cotton rag 16.53” x 23.39”/ 42 cm x 59.4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ
Gideon Mendel #1: 59 toothbrushes collected at the Calais ‘Jungle’, an encampment where migrants live while they attempt to enter the United Kingdom. Series: Displaces Duratran lightbox Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Axis Gallery, NY & NJ