1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair: On Mohamed Melehi, People, Leaves, and Color

There is no mistaking that the works of Mohamed Melehi are beautiful. At an awe-inducing dimension that’s about half the size of a sports car (and just as expensive), one cannot help but be impressed. The giant slabs of High-Def, jewel-toned color hang from walls that seem too light to hold them. Bursting from their vibrant facades are gold-tinted leaves and amorphous sloping figures – the leaves painted just like a trendy woman might put on her lipstick: divided in two, following the curve, and featuring a different color for each portion.

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Melehi was the artist represented by the Taymour Grahne Gallery at the 3rd annual 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Just like his art, he is the perfect image of what one might imagine when prompted to think about what an established Moroccan-Mediterranean artist might look like: He has evenly browned skin, white hair, and a potentially once-womanizing fierceness offset by a grandpa-esque gentility. On his arm at the event was the perfect accessory for such a figure, a woman, – presumably his wife or girlfriend –  with thick eyeliner, long wavy hair, black heels, and an abundance of gold jewelry.

Friend of Melehi, Me (in the Adidas), Melehi’s exotic womanfriend, Melehi himself

The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is the leading international art fair dedicated to Contemporary African Art. It’s held twice a year – in London in the fall and in New York in the spring – and boasts an impressive array of artists and exhibitors. They hail from places as far as Nairobi, Milan, Accra, Paris, a city called Luanda in a country called Angola which I can’t even locate on a map off the top of my head, and from places as close as New York itself.

via PEPFAR.gov

In the art world, (and maybe I’m just biased from my experience) it often feels like the majority of the players, the artists and gallery owners/workers and patrons, are white and wealthy. The existence of art fairs like 1:54 are important in their ability to promote artists and gallerists from varying ethnic and economic backgrounds. Purchases have the potential to make an unspoken statement regarding the promotion of marginalized peoples.

However, much to my surprise, the 1:54 fair didn’t draw the Hollywood-activist types I thought it might and which it presumably should. The art community continues to cater to its already-established, relatively small art community.  One man did sign in at our booth who was later discovered (aka Google searched) to be a B-List celebrity, but I kept eagerly waiting for a Kanye West or a 50 Cent to roll up with their glaringly incognito crews…to no avail.

I think that what the art world needs right now, is a superhero. An art vigilante celebrity with the power to inspire others – ideally their celebrity friends – to buy art from contemporary artists and lead the way for everyone else to follow. I think that more promotion of contemporary art in popular culture (that is, by the Kanyes and 50s of the world) would lead to a healthier art industry and a larger public with a genuine appreciation for art and a connection to the people who make and sell it.

Below, a few of my favorites from the fair:




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