O n the second floor of Pioneer Works, the nonprofit cultural centre in Red Hook, Phoebe Boswell has installed For Every Real Word Spoken and I Need to Believe the World is Still Beautiful, a portrait and installation series that combines traditional pencil drawing with technology. It’s one of the special projects of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which is being held at the space through 6 May.
The nearly life-sized portraits, inspired by Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit series, presents the artist’s friends and acquaintance posed nude, their hands clasped in front of their body holding a cell phone on which Boswell has meticulously hand-drawn a QR code. “I wanted to give them the agency for their own portraits,” says Boswell. “They title the portraits, and they’re the only ones with access to coding the codes. So they can change it whenever they want, and I I don’t have any control over that.” Today the links included the Audre Lorde poem “Stations,” a Youtube video of The Voices of East Harlem performing at Sing Sing Prison in 1973, and Brenda Fassie’s 1989 song “Good Black Women.” “The idea is that for the life of the work they’re constantly having a conversation through the drawing,” Boswell says.
Downstairs, parked outside in the garden is large reclaimed Casspir armored vehicle, the kind used by the South African police during Apartheid oppression. In this reclaimed work, Ralph Zitman has covered the surface in elaborate, brightly-colored panels of glass beads, arrayed in traditional patterns made by artisans from Zimbabwe and the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. Doing so was a way to transform this symbol of violence and terror into one of cultural pride and beauty. He wants to tour the vehicle across America, where a history of police brutality and the recent “Black Lives Matter” protests underscore its message.
Inside, the fair’s 21 international exhibitors hailed from London, Johannesburg, New York and beyond, displaying more than 60 artists, ranging from the established to the emerging. Many of the works centered on themes of oppression, identity, female agency and empowerment. Larger gallerist James Cohan is showing for the first time, displaying a towering statue of Pan by Yinka Shonibare surrounded by Medusa East, 2015, his digital prints of the mythic creature. Launched in 2013 in London, 1-54 started a New York version in 2015, and this year launched its newest edition in Morocco.