The fourth edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London opened Wednesday morning at Somerset House, the neoclassical palace overlooking the River Thames. This year, 1:54 is showcasing 40 galleries from 18 countries, representing a diverse spread of the vast African continent and its diaspora in the Victorian east and west wings of the Tudor mansion.
In the courtyard, leading to the fair’s entrance, 40 nude black male figures make up Trinidadian-British artist Zak Ové’s sculptural installation Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness (2016). “The piece is an amalgamation of African cultures, cast in graphite,” explained Ové, standing in between the figures. “I wanted to make pieces that herald the future as much as the past—in terms of what they present of our culture and how they reclaim this space here, which has been a place of establishment,” he continued. “I felt that that particular gesture encapsulated so much that is relevant right now—almost in the same context as Black Lives Matter. Here are 40 male nudes looking beautiful in their nakedness in the center of Britain’s establishment.”
Installed just in front of Somerset House’s water fountains, the figures evoke Ben Johnson’s 1605 Masque of Blackness—an amateur dramatic production enacted by Queen Anne and her ladies at court, which explored the relationship between skin color, beauty, and identity. Black and Blue also pays homage to the condition of black people as described by Ralph Ellison in his seminal novel Invisible Man; and as encompassed by the life of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black male fatally shot by a police officer in 2014. The courtly figures hold their hands up as a sign of solidarity, in the same manner as the Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, when they marched through the streets, yelling, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The work establishes the diasporic scope found mounted on the walls, above fireplaces, and on the floors within the palace.