An upbeat view of Africa

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Somerset House with the Nubian army of masked men by Zak Ove

What started out as a small offshoot African art fair at the time of the Frieze has quietly grown and placed a very big African footprint on this London show. From a few rooms on one side of Somerset House four years ago, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair now fills almost the entire building. What is most encouraging though is the clearly affluent African audience who thronged the place.

1:54 is so-called because there are 54 countries on the African continent. Over the past four years this has become a hugely significant showing for all contemporary African art, with gallerists from Africa, America and Europe taking part.

For a continent known for famine, violence and corruption, the themes that emerge from this huge show are surprisingly light and cheerful. There is a sense of humour, a quirkiness and delight in colour, texture and pattern that I have not seen in Western art on the same scale. Of course there are comments on war, on issues like the rights of women, but there is also a lot of sheer beauty and wit.

It is difficult to keep track of where artists hail from, with so many galleries from around the world. French-speaking Africa was best represented, but there are some strong contenders from South Africa. Of course, many artists who started life elsewhere end up migrating to South Africa too.

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Michele Mathison’s Zimbabwean birds

Amongst those that caught my eye were Michele Mathison, a Zimbabwean whose burnt wood and metal sculptures were strong symbols of his country, and exhibited as they were against a terracotta background formed a striking image. His interlinking circle of wooden guns was repeated elsewhere in works that use the real decommissioned weapons to build a throne.

From Ghana, Maurice Mbikayi takes over the mantle from El Anatsui’s shimmering drapery made from bottle caps by creating cloaks from technology junk, such as keyboards and handsets. The result is visually pleasing and quite appealing, especially with a cabaret style line-up of top hats and canes. And he’s not the only one using technology cast-offs, Moffat Takadiwa’s Graduation Gowns had a similar appeal. This must be something about Ghana, because Serge Attukwei Clottey also uses landfill to create hangings of stunning patterning with cut up blocks of plastic containers while Ibrahim Mahama makes use of huge coal sacks for his work.

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Maurice Mbiyaki’s witty cabaret line-up, Googling My Dreams

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Moffat Takadiwa’s Graduation Gowns made from computer keys

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Serge Attukwei Clottey in front of his hangings made from plastic containers

The Nando’s African collection, which is rotated between the different UK outlets of this restaurant, features four artists in different mediums: photographs by Mbikayi, Kagiso Patrick Mautloa’s found objects that are turned into Masks and Regi Bardavid’s large abstract canvasses with their blocks of saturated colour. The fourth artist, Lizette Chirrime, makes use of traditional beadwork to create swirls of decorative designs, bringing a traditional craft right up to date with its story of transformation.

Patrick Mautloa’s Masks and a detail from Lizette Chirrime’s beadwork

South African photographers Gideon Mendel, Jodi Bieber and Justin Dingwall also have work featured. Mendel, who made a name for himself as a ‘struggle’ photographer, but now lives in London, has images that deal with the ravages of water, salvaging found items, creating wonderfully fluid colours and effects. Bieber’s images deal with women and how they are portrayed, Dingwall’s with the superstition surrounding albinism and although Namsa Leuba is Swiss, her series Zulu Kids series looks at ancient Zulu tribal practices in today’s world.

Gideon Mendel (left) and Jodi Bieber’s photographs

Included in the fair is a major solo exhibition of the late Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, which continues until January. The black and white images chronicle an upbeat nightlife in Bamako from the Sixties, with outsize sunglasses, fashionable flares and swirling dancing.

The fountain forecourt of Somerset House has been invaded by a stark Nubian army of masked men by Caribbean artist Zak Ové, who interestingly also works in fabric to create multi-coloured kitsch crochet swirls that couldn’t be more different from his resin sculptures.

Ibrahim El Salahi became the first African artist to be given a retrospective by the Tate Modern in 2013. His The Arab Spring Notebook is a series of small images in his signature style reflecting the turmoil of that period. There were also larger pieces of his on show in various galleries.

The Islamic influence on African art, and its historical use of decorative patterning is perhaps one of the reasons for the existence of so much non-representational art. The use of recycled objects is a prominent theme here, commenting in part on consumerism in modern Africa and the disappearance of tribal traditions.

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