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A Friday Night In Monrovia With Liberia's Biggest Pop Star

Off a damp alley in central Monrovia is an overheated bar with Liberia's best new music.

Takun J, Liberia's biggest pop star on a Friday night at 146 in Monrovia. (Photo: Ashoka Mukpo)


Walk down a damp alley off Carey Street in the commercial heart of Monrovia and you'll arrive at a metal door. Pay the bouncer, a burly man in camo pants, 100 'Liberty,' about one US dollar, and he'll swing open the door, releasing a burst of hot air and booming bass from the music inside.

“ONE FOUR SIX!” yells the MC. “ALL DAY EVERY DAY!” the crowd responds.

This is ‘146,’ the courtyard-turned-bar, founded by Takun J, Liberia’s biggest pop star, where every Friday spectators come to see artists perform the latest Hipco hits. With influences as varied as Liberian gospel, American hip-hop, and Nigerian pop, this local genre has become the de facto artistic language of young Monrovians. While not as polished as Azonto or Nigerian pop, what Hipco lacks in sonic refinement it makes up for in subversive energy and wit.

In a wide room with a low ceiling the young crowd stares at the stage. Off to the side, a bartender slings the local Club beer. Here, Liberia’s past—civil war, Ebola—feels far away.

The bar is hot – too hot. As Takun J’s star rose on the back of national hits like "My Way," "Pot Boiling," and his recent post-Ebola anti-government single, "They Lie to Us," he’s made a series of improvements to the space.

What was once a sparse courtyard with a pool table and weights has become a popular bar and art space. During this year’s rainy season he built a roof which succeeded in keeping out the ubiquitous rain but turned it into a sweatbox as a result. On Friday nights, when a packed crowd comes out for the open mic, the bar feels more like a sauna.

146,’ is the block’s urban zoning number. This is the heart of Monrovia, and on Friday nights it attracts a lively group who come to hear artists perform songs they’ve heard on radio stations or off SIM chips sold on street corners. There’s a communal spirit to the night. The absence of serious money in the scene has kept feuds mostly lighthearted and means that its primary currency is still the ego boost that comes from having the hottest song or verse.

In Monrovia, many clubs and restaurants cater to upscale audiences of expatriate aid workers and ‘repats’—Liberians who spent the war years in America or Europe. 146’s clientele on Fridays is mostly born and raised Liberians. They come looking crisp and stylish. The smell of weed drifts across the room, beers are knocked back, and the energy is friendly and engaging—even familial.

Butterfly, one of Liberia's top female Hipco artists. (Photo: Ashoka Mukpo)

On stage, Butterfly winds her way in and out of the crowd. Female rappers are a staple of Hipco, moving from serious subjects like sexual assault to boasts and insults. Butterfly performs every week, all confidence and curves—Liberia’s answer to Nicki Minaj. Her song, "Take it You Pay," is a sly nod to the precarious life led by young Liberian women. (Don’t touch my apple/ if you take it you pay).

As a reward, patrons ball up small bills and drop it in a box in front of the stage. If it’s an especially exciting song, they might throw the bills at the artist or come up and stuff them in his shirt. When Takun J saunters onto the stage for his turn in the spotlight, the crowd rapturously sings the words to every song.

Unlike some other African dance genres, Hipco is a long way from crossing over to European or American markets. The production value is low, owing to limited resources for the latest studio equipment. More importantly, most of the rapping is done in ‘colloqua,’ Liberia’s street English, which can be indecipherable to non-residents.

But in the muggy, ecstatic atmosphere of 146 on Friday nights, it’s hard to see why that matters. In a country where public spaces are dominated by imports, whether in the form of political returnees or the cultural products of the US and Liberia’s culturally powerful neighbors, Hipco is a vital, homegrown movement.

It’s hard to predict Liberia’s future, but it’s easy to imagine the next generation of Monrovian artists reminiscing about what it was like the first time they snuck in or hit the stage at 146. Whatever the future brings for Liberian music, there’s nowhere better to be on a Friday night.

Liberians relaxing at 146 after a long week.

Takun J, Liberia's biggest pop star.

Amaze (left) performing with Arthur Cassell.

All photos by Ashoka Mukpo.

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Artwork: Barthélémy Toguo Lockdown Selfportrait 10, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Goes to Paris in 2021

The longstanding celebration of African art will be hosted by Parisian hot spot Christie's for the first time ever.

In admittedly unideal circumstances, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair will be touching French soil in 2021. The internationally celebrated art fair devoted to contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora will be hosted in Paris, France from January 20 - 23. With COVID-19 still having its way around the globe, finding new ways to connect is what it's all about and 1-54 is certainly taking the innovative steps to keep African art alive and well.
In partnership with Christie's, the in-person exhibits will take place at the auction house's city HQ at Avenue Matignon, while 20 international exhibitors will be featured online at Christies.com. And the fun doesn't stop there as the collaboration has brought in new ways to admire the talent from participating galleries from across Africa and Europe. The fair's multi-disciplinary program of talks, screenings, performances, workshops, and readings are set to excite and entice revelers.

Artwork: Delphine Desane Deep Sorrow, 2020. Courtesy Luce Gallery


The tech dependant program, curated by Le 18, a multi-disciplinary art space in Marrakech medina, will see events take place during the Parisian run fair, followed by more throughout February.
This year's 1-54 online will be accessible to global visitors virtually, following the success of the 2019's fair in New York City and London in 2020. In the wake of COVID-19 related regulations and public guidelines, 1-54 in collaboration with Christie's Paris is in compliance with all national regulations, strict sanitary measures, and security.

Artwork: Cristiano Mongovo Murmurantes Acrilico Sobre Tela 190x200cm 2019


1-54 founding director Touria El Glaoui commented, "Whilst we're sad not to be able to go ahead with the fourth edition of 1-54 Marrakech in February as hoped, we are incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be in Paris this January with our first-ever fair on French soil thanks to our dedicated partners Christie's. 1-54's vision has always been to promote vibrant and dynamic contemporary art from a diverse set of African perspectives and bring it to new audiences, and what better way of doing so than to launch an edition somewhere completely new. Thanks to the special Season of African Culture in France, 2021 is already set to be a great year for African art in the country so we are excited to be playing our part and look forward, all being well, to welcoming our French friends to Christie's and many more from around the world to our online fair in January."

Julien Pradels, General Director of Christie's France, said, "Christie's is delighted to announce our second collaboration with 1-54, the Contemporary African Art Fair, following a successful edition in London this October. Paris, with its strong links to the continent, is a perfect place for such a project and the additional context of the delayed Saison Africa 2020 makes this partnership all the more special. We hope this collaboration will prove a meaningful platform for the vibrant African art scene and we are confident that collectors will be as enthusiastic to see the works presented, as we are."


Artwork: Kwesi Botchway Metamorphose in July, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957


Here's a list of participating galleries to be on the lookout for:

Galleries

31 PROJECT (Paris, France)
50 Golborne (London, United Kingdom)
Dominique Fiat (Paris, France)
Galerie 127 (Marrakech, Morocco)
Galerie Anne de Villepoix (Paris, France)
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire/ Dakar, Senegal)
Galerie Eric Dupont (Paris, France)
Galerie Lelong & Co. (Paris, France / New York, USA)
Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris, France / Brussels, Belgium)
Galleria Continua (Beijing, China / Havana, Cuba / Les Moulins, France / San Gimignano, Italy / Rome, Italy)
Gallery 1957 (Accra, Ghana / London, United Kingdom)
Loft Art Gallery (Casablanca, Morocco)

Luce Gallery (Turin, Italy)
MAGNIN-A (Paris, France)
Nil Gallery (Paris, France)
POLARTICS (Lagos, Nigeria)
SEPTIEME Gallery (Paris, France)
This is Not a White Cube (Luanda, Angola) THK Gallery (Cape Town, South Africa) Wilde (Geneva, Switzerland)

For more info visit 1-54

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