Just two years ago Zoma Museum founder, Meskerem Assegued, hosted a gathering of several well-regarded US gallerists, curators, institute directors and more. Amongst the group was African American Naomi Beckwith, Senior Curator for Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MOCA); now New York Guggenheim’s fresh pick as Deputy Director and Chief Curator. By the way she was the only Black person in the prestigious delegation of visiting participants at Zoma. For the record, connections between the Guggenheim and Ethiopian artists include the multi-million USD exhibition of Ethiopian born American, Julie Meheretu, and Zoma’s co-founder and ingenious artist, Elias Sime, recently nominated for the Guggenheim’s $100K 2020 Hugo Boss Prize. The Guggenheim is as big as it gets in the art world, thus Naomi’s appointment is an immense win and Black folks in the arts are proud, hopeful and tickled brown. Beckwith stated, “One cannot overstate the iconicity and consequence of the Guggenheim Museum-yet, refusing to rest on its laurels, it readily presents projects that disrupt art history’s mythologies. I’m excited to join the Guggenheim and its passionate team at a pivotal moment. I look forward to merging our shared goals of expanding the story of art, and also working to shape a new reality for arts and culture.”
I have been trying to unpack Naomi’s statement, taking a cautionary cue from Danny Simmons, abstract-expressionist painter extraordinaire, to not racialize this major move for Beckwith. Danny, founder of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation – big brother to entertainment mogul Russell Simmons and rapper/TV star “Rev. Run” of Run DMC, said in his Facebook feed: “This is amazing news…a blessing for the field as a whole.” The African American artist and collector of rare African antiquities from Yoruba masks to Ethiopian hand carved chairs, rightly chose not to enter into a diatribe on racial discrimination, yet. That is, even if racism plagues the art industry, including the Guggenheim, recently embroiled in employee complaints of alleged racism. Nonetheless, Naomi’s well-earned post is based on over a decade of extensive accomplishments including curatorial support on “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” conceived by the distinguished Nigerian curator, the late Okwui Enwezor, which received high acclaim from mainstream media.
Exponential attention and demand for African art in the USA and Europe are racking up and the ‘more (of us) the merrier’ is the clarion call. With the caveat that the ‘more’ should make “us” “merry” too. One answer to the call came in 2013 when 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair was launched, “Striving to promote diverse perspectives…drawing reference to the fifty-four countries that constitute the African continent… a sustainable and dynamic platform … engaged in contemporary dialogue and exchange…we’re about, but ultimately…One continent, 54 countries” declares founder, Moroccan Touria El Glaoui. 1:54 is “… the leading international art fair dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora…in London since 2013, New York since 2015 and Marrakech since 2018…” Touria made Forbe’s list of “100 most powerful women in Africa” and NewAfrican’s “one of 100 most influential Africans in business”. Power, Influence and African art…words rarely used in the same sentence. This should be a win, right? Well, the verdict is out for the long-term impact on both the brand and discourse of “1:54” in the future. Why? There are actually 55 member states of the African Union, including Western Sahara aka Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), OAU/AU member since 1982. (Disclaimer: Maybe the Moroccan based her brand “1:54” on the then 54 AU member states in 2013 which didn’t include her home country, Morocco, readmitted to the AU in 2017 following a 34-year absence, making Morocco number 55.)
This is not about the political dispute between ADR and Morocco over sovereignty; nor is it about Trump’s last-ditch divisive opening of a US consulate in the contested region. This is about how we define, recognize and present ourselves to the world. This is about how to establish Africa in the international art industry, using powerful and influential voices that inform and enlighten. Admittedly, it is disconcerting that international media, renowned curators, famous museums, makers and shakers of the international art world and leading art houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s echo El Glaoui menacing mantra “One continent, 54 countries”…which I am constantly correcting.
So, with the AU’s decision to recognize 2021 as “The Year of Arts, Culture and Heritage” let’s see if 1:54, Africa’s exclusive African Art Fair, is taken to task for its title and if such small rumblings even matter to the founder and her followers who bask in the success of her hard work and commitment which is making money and winning the main stream art world. So, let’s “not throw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old Jamaican saying goes. I recall being at the AU Summit when Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, upon Morocco’s readmission to the AU stated, “Africa wants to speak in one voice. We need all African countries to be a part of that voice.” With the African Continental Free Trade Area on the horizon and the possibility for trading art in the largest trade block in the world, building Africa’s art industry, it will be interesting to see the trajectory of the 1:54 brand… a win, lose or draw for African art.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.