New York Times: Touria El Glaoui Brings Contemporary African Art to the World

LONDON — Though Touria El Glaoui is the daughter of Hassan El Glaoui, the celebrated Moroccan figurative painter who died in June, she never thought she would end up working in the art world. In fact her father tried to steer her, and her three older sisters, away from the creative sector because he knew how hard it was to make a career in visual arts.

It worked for a while. After Ms. El Glaoui completed an M.B.A. in New York, she worked first in banking and then moved to London, traveling between the Middle East and Africa on business development projects. But after organizing and cocreating a few exhibitions of her father’s work, including a major retrospective in Casablanca in 2010, she got the inspiration to create an art fair focused around contemporary African art.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the founding of 1-54 in London, which will take place during Frieze Week at London’s Somerset House with over 40 galleries from the African continent, Europe and the United States. 1-54 is also now an annual event on New York’s art calendar (it also runs in tandem with Frieze New York in May) and in February this year the inaugural 1-54 Marrakesh opened at the five-star La Mamounia hotel.

Ms. El Glaoui, 43, who was raised in Morocco, talked over lunch about the fair. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

What are some of the highlights that we will see at 1-54 London?

In the courtyard at Somerset House we will have a 20-foot high “Meditation Tree” by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. I cannot wait to see it. He has not worked before in such a big scale.

The other amazing things we have been working on are an exhibition in collaboration with Somerset House, a solo show of South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga called “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions,” which will run until Jan. 7. Also, the London-based The Gallery of Everything will be presenting an installation of newly discovered works by Haitian artist Robert Saint-Brice, which is part of a three-venue project called “Art + Revolution in Haiti,” highlighting Haitian artists, with exhibitions also being held at Frieze Masters and The Gallery of Everything.

Five years ago would you ever have guessed that your fair would have expanded to include annual editions in New York and Marrakesh as well?

Definitely not in the first year. That first year it was a trial. I just hoped the artwork would get to the city on time and the galleries would do well because it was quite an investment for them.

At the end of the second year, I had a clear vision for New York. With an African fair I was not sure about the location but being in Africa was part of my initial plan.

Why was it important for you to have an art fair focused on African contemporary art?

Before the fair was launched there seemed to not be a lot of focus on contemporary African art. There were few galleries in London and around the world that I could call on in terms of institutions. It is not what we see today.

In 2011, around the same time I started investigating a fair, the Tate committed to adding to their collection and it marked a certain milestone in terms of what was happening.

Between 2013 and now, we have had a chance to see so many new galleries appear on the African continent, in Europe and North America representing more and more African artists. The scene has changed and the interest is stronger every year. It has been interesting to see that shift.

In London I have seen a shift. We are really a part of the art scene where a lot of people going to Frieze are also here for 1-54. And I think we are also attractive to people who want to discover the new and want to specifically buy contemporary African art.

Where we find it difficult is still the New York market because it is quite new and I manage it from London. I want different museums to all be keen to come and check out 1-54 and there are so many important American collectors. But I know also there is limitation because it is quite costly for galleries coming from Africa to go to New York.

So there are different variables that I will always have to take into consideration and it is not easy to take part in three fairs for all the galleries. So it is interesting to see how the galleries are going to position themselves over the next five years.

Obviously different galleries go to different fairs but how else are the fairs different from each other?

London will always be dear to me and Somerset House gives a whole different atmosphere versus Pioneer Works, which is in Brooklyn in this factory, a structure with high ceilings and all the exhibitors are in one room. [Next year the fair will be moving to Industria, a repurposed garage and photo studio in the West Village.]

So that is a 100 percent different feeling. And La Mamounia is luxurious and the location itself became a meeting point, where people would meet over breakfast or in the bar or the garden, discussing art. It was a wonderful meeting point to mingle and talk about art.

Because of a number of reasons, like poor infrastructure for the arts in many countries in Africa, 1-54 is a great opportunity for African artists to get their work seen abroad and something important to put on their résumés.

That has been something that has always been with me. Before 1-54 started, I sat down with Sheena Wagstaff, who at the time was chief curator at the Tate Modern before going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she told me, “An African art fair is a great idea but just remember it is going to be the first time for all those artists being represented in a book, a catalog, physically. So don’t take it lightly. So if you are thinking of doing this fair, it will be their first exposure internationally.”

And that stuck with me. The catalog I started doing from 2013 is more of a reference book for the artists rather than a gallery reference like most of the other fairs. In our catalog, each of our artists has a page and then it lists who is representing them.

Photos: 1) South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s “Night of the Long Knives I” from 2013.Courtesy Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD 2) Touria El Glaoui Credit, Katrina Sorrentino; 3) “Meditation Tree” by the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi from 2018.Credit Courtesy of the artist