Touria El Glaoui: putting African contemporary art on the map
The founder of the 1-54 art fair talks to Claire Wrathall about discovering and giving African artists international visibility, growing up with an artist father, and building her own collection
Touria El Glaoui has art in her genes. Her father, Hassan El Glaoui, a painter of figurative scenes of horsemen and landscapes, now in his nineties, is arguably the best-known Moroccan artist of his generation. She talks often of her fond memories of the ‘smell of paint drifting from his studio’, and both her sisters are artists. But she is ‘not even remotely talented,’ she says. ‘You either have it or you don’t, and I don’t, though I love hanging out with artists.’
Rather, her skills lie in business: she was included among the 100 most powerful women in Africa by Forbes in 2016, the 50 most powerful women in Africa by Jeune Afrique before that, and, indeed, the 100 most influential Africans in business by New African in 2013.
She has chosen to meet in the salon de thé at La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech to show me the distinctive, brightly coloured optic abstracts temporarily on the hotel’s walls — works by the Moroccan painter Mohammed Melehi, who was born in 1936, and is represented in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
‘He is really considered one of our first generation of modern artists,’ says El Glaoui. The exhibition was staged in collaboration with Casablanca’s Loft Art Gallery to coincide with the first edition in an African country of 1-54, the annual art fair devoted to work from Africa or by African artists, launched by El Glaoui in London in 2013, and in New York two years later.
Art, especially contemporary art from Africa, may be a passion, but it is also now the focus of El Glaoui’s work. The day before, the fair had opened to VIPs; today the public would be welcomed. ‘So it’s something of a homecoming for me,’ she says, ‘an opportunity to plough back into the very land’ that inspired her to set it up.
El Glaoui is half-French — her mother, Christine Legendre, was a model who ‘walked’ for Givenchy — but she grew up in Rabat, before studying at Pace University in New York and spending two years working for a brokerage firm in Manhattan. She then returned on a scholarship to Pace’s Lubin School of Business to do an MBA and moved from there to wealth management at Salomon Smith Barney.
In 2001, she moved into telecoms, joining an investment fund in London. This took her back to Morocco, where she worked for Cisco Systems, which was developing its Middle Eastern and African markets. ‘And that was how I “discovered” Africa.’
She laughs at her turn of phrase. (She laughs a lot.) ‘I don’t mean I was Christophe Colomb’ — her perfect English is infected with French — ‘but that’s how I became interested in Africa and in its art. When you grow up here and go to Europe or the US to study, you’re automatically turning your back. Africa becomes somewhere you go on holiday. For some reason this is how you are raised, if you’re privileged enough. I didn’t really know Morocco’s neighbours at all.’
But her job required a lot of travelling, and at a gallery in Dakar, Senegal, she encountered the work of the Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté, known for his large-scale textile installations, which explore gradations of colour in the context of musical tonalities. This was a sort of epiphany.
She had happened on a ‘scene I might never otherwise have found; something I wasn’t finding in London or the US. And I was so enthused by it.’ The more she travelled, the more exhibitions she saw. And gradually it began to dawn on her that she could make a career out of it.
El Glaoui wasn’t entirely new to exhibitions. In London, she had organised, ‘as a hobby’, a show of her father’s work at Leighton House Museum in Kensington, the ‘private palace of art’ of the Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Here, Hassan’s work was shown alongside art by Winston Churchill.
A creditable amateur painter, champion of Marrakech, and friend of Hassan’s father, Churchill had played a critical role in enabling Hassan to follow his calling as an artist. ‘I grew up hearing this story that Churchill had seen my dad’s paintings in the office of my grandfather,’ she says.
‘I want each edition of 1-54 to be a reference book dedicated to the artists, because for some of them it’s the first time their work has been published’ — Touria El Glaoui
Thami El Glaoui, the then all-powerful pasha of Marrakech, had been concerned by his son’s desire to paint and, in 1943, had sought the British prime minister’s advice about whether to let him go to art school. Churchill, who was staying in Morocco after attending the Casablanca Conference, saw promise in Hassan and urged the pasha to allow him to enrol at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After all, Churchill was evidence that you could be a global statesman and still, as El Glaoui puts it, ‘paint on the side’.
So Hassan was allowed to go to France and forge a career there. By the time he returned to Morocco, he had gallery representation in Europe and an international reputation, an advantage denied most artists coming of age in Africa, who, says El Glaoui, can suffer from both lack of visibility and lack of access to an established infrastructure. Even those with local gallery representation can struggle: ‘There are financial barriers everywhere. Bringing art to London or New York from Accra or Lagos is very expensive.’
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Establishing an art fair would be a way to help African artists gain global recognition. She named the fair that she founded 1-54, because the African continent is composed of 54 countries. ‘At first I thought I’d do it in Africa, and have a different country host it every year. But the more I dug into what that would require, the more I realised it would never happen. I didn’t think there was a country with a collector base strong enough to host the fair. And I realised it would take me for ever to understand the cities and local markets.’
So she launched it in London, which she calls both ‘the capital of the world’ and home, and where the very international collector base that attends 1-54 is, she reckons, more or less the same as it is for Frieze.
In contrast, the US edition has a stronger African-American collector base, and benefits from institutional support thanks to several museums — she cites the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh — all of which have dynamic acquisitions programmes and a commitment to buying work by African artists. It’s telling that Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA New York, was in Marrakech for this year’s fair, too.
This brings us to the New York edition, which ran concurrently with Frieze New York in May, bringing 21 galleries, about half from Africa, to Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Founded by the artist Dustin Yellin in 2012, this former warehouse and garden now exists as a place to ‘foster multidisciplinary creativity in the arts and sciences’, making it an ideal setting for 1-54’s programme of diverse ancillary events, which means, says El Glaoui, that people tend to come for the whole day.
In Marrakech, there were talks, book signings, collaborative events with local galleries that weren’t part of the fair, even performance art in the city’s main square, the Jemaa el-Fna. And two artists, the Algerian-born Belgian conceptualist Eric Van Hove and the Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj, had opened their studios.
The latter, in a riad in the Medina, also showed work by a much less established Moroccan photographer, Yoriyas, who does not yet have gallery representation. El Glaoui has said that the work of Hajjaj, and the Kesh Angels series in particular, talks to her ‘directly as a Muslim woman’, noting that the luxury-logo-filled portraits with their frames made from cans of Moroccan food ‘challenge every [existing] representation of Muslim Arabic women [and] really push on the boundaries of stereotypes and cliché’.
Two works by Hajjaj were sold by Vigo Gallery at the Marrakech fair’s preview day. But El Glaoui herself waits until the last day to buy. ‘In France there’s a saying: Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés [Shoemakers are always the worst shod]. I go around and see what’s left.’ She could, she knows, pull rank as director of the fair, but its raison d’être is to help galleries and artists forge relationships with collectors, not her.
Indeed, one can’t help sensing real altruism in her approach to running the fair (‘I’m not taking on Art Basel!’). If galleries that she believes deserve a presence cannot afford a stand — she mentions one from Mali, another from Mozambique — she will try to help. Indeed, she reckons 70 or 80 per cent of her time is spent fundraising to enable a good geographical spread of exhibitors.
It would be an exaggeration to call it a non-profit venture, because the fair is just about breaking even now. But it hasn’t always been so: in 2015, she resorted to Kickstarter to raise funds to produce the catalogue: ‘I want each edition to be a reference book dedicated to the artists, because for some of them it’s the first time their work has been published, and the difference that can make to a career is unbelievable.’ And although 1-54 has five permanent staff, they also rely on a team of ‘fantastic’ volunteers.
So she is not yet a major buyer of art. ‘My own budget is very small and so is my apartment, and so much of what I have is still wrapped up.’ But over the past five years, she has begun to build a thoughtful collection of works by, among others, the Moroccan Safaa Erruas, Zimbabwean Dan Halter, Tunisian Farah Khelil and Nigerian-German Ransome Stanley.
On her wish list this year was a textile work, Ça va aller 18 (It will be OK 18 ), by Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire. ‘Her work looks so joyful,’ says El Glaoui, but there is always a grim subtext. In this instance the image, based on a photograph taken on her iPhone, shows the beach at Grand Bassam, a resort near Abidjan, after the terrorist attack in March 2016 when 16 people were shot dead. She transfers the photograph onto canvas and then embroiders it with brightly coloured cotton, lurex and wool. ‘By making something beautiful,’ says El Glaoui, ‘she is able to come to terms with the event and move on. I’m a very emotional collector,’ she adds.
Touria El Glaoui is a member of the Christie’s Education Professional Advisory Board. Christie’s Education is a sponsor of 1:54, and will be hosting the fair’s symposium in September at its new space in Portland Place