Omar Victor Diop: Jean-Baptiste Belley, 2014, ink-jet print, 23 1/2 by 15 3/4 inches. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris.

Trevor Schoonmaker's connection to contemporary African art stretches back to his childhood in Winston-Salem, N.C., when he was close with a Nigerian family in his neighborhood. In 1992, Schoonmaker—now chief curator at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C., and artistic director of the Prospect.4 biennial in New Orleans, opening in fall 2017—lived with this family in Ife, Nigeria, a university town about 130 miles north of Lagos, where he interviewed contemporary artists and nurtured his interest in African art. In grad school at the University of Michigan a few years later, Schoonmaker realized that there were no courses on the topic; instead he studied the separate disciplines of contemporary art and traditional African art.

"I met Okwui Enwezor around that time, but no one knew he was going to become this rock-star curator," Schoonmaker said, laughing, as we walked around New York's inaugural edition of 1:54, the contemporary African art fair that launched in London two years ago. Named for the 54 countries on the African continent, 1:54 was founded by Touria El Glaoui, who worked in the banking, tech and telecom industries in London and is the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui. For its maiden voyage in New York (May 15-17), 1:54 brought 16 galleries to the ground floor of Pioneer Works, an arts nonprofit in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Schoonmaker and I started at Paris-based Magnin-A's booth, which brought work by 13 artists to the fair, more than any other gallery. Its mix of young artists with those who are more well-known (e.g. Mali's Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, "the godfather of African photography," per Schoonmaker, and Nigeria's J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere) made it a good starting point. Ojeikere's photos of African women's hairstyles "use a coded language to speak to issues of class and place," Schoonmaker explained. "It's interesting to see younger African-American artists, like Mickalene Thomas, responding to work like this."

On the other side of the booth were five self-portraits by Dakar-based Omar Victor Diop, from a series in which the young Senegalese artist photographs himself dressed in clothing inspired by 16th-19th century portraits of Africans who had lived in Europe. (Diop, perhaps the most nattily dressed person at the fair during the preview, collaborates with a local tailor to design the outfits.) To ensure the pictures are not only tied to the past, soccer accessories—gloves, a ball, shoes—are included with the otherwise very formal, traditional outfits.

At Johannesburg's Afronova booth, Schoonmaker studied a pair of silk tapestries by Billie Zangewa. Gallery founder Henri Vergon explained that Zangewa's autobiographical images—here showing a street scene in Johannesburg and the artist in her kitchen, baby on her hip—are based on a combination of photographs and memories. The pieces are first articulated in watercolor before Zangewa spends up to three months hand-sewing each piece. "This work resonates with Njideka Akunyili Crosby," Schoonmaker observed, referring to the young Nigerian-American artist known for her intimate yet large-scale painted portraits and still lifes.

London's Jack Bell Gallery also had several examples of 1960s and ‘70s portrait photography by another Mali-based artist Hamidou Maiga, who once shared a studio with the much better known Sidibé. Maiga's early prints were taken along the banks of the River Niger, using painted backdrops the artist carted around as a traveling portrait photographer. By the ‘70s he had a studio where he took the wonderful shot of three young men in somewhat traditional dress, one holding a boom box, another smiling with a cigarette clenched in his teeth, all three making sure their watches are visible for the camera.

Schoonmaker was intrigued by the beautifully crafted wood and metal sculptures on view in Marrakesh's Voice Gallery's booth. The objects are selections from Eric van Hove's Testosterone project. Van Hove (born in Algeria and based in Brussels) hired Moroccan craftsman to re-create a sports car engine based one extracted from a Mercedes he purchased in Estonia. The artisans used over 50 materials to make each individual part by hand, proving that it is possible to build a sports car from the ground up in Marrakesh. Schoonmaker expressed a combination of envy and approval when the gallery's Italian owner, Rocco Orlacchio, revealed that the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College had recently purchased the entire installation.

One of our last stops was to NOMAD's booth, a gallery based in Brussels and Miami. There Schoonmaker was eager to see new work by Lavar Munroe, a Bahamian artist he recently included in "Area 919," a show of local artists at the Nasher. (Munroe currently has a residency at UNC Chapel Hill.) Munroe explained that his mixed-medium works are based on his research into the "human zoos" that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the pieces, a self-portrait of Munroe as a prized pink pony, addresses the way that animals are often seen as spiritual and otherworldly while also, when compared to a person, used as an insult. In Munroe's work Schoonmaker sees "human-animal hybrids that are wounded but triumphant."

Chatter at some booths turned to the question that often plagues art fairs and exhibitions with a narrow geographical focus: are they effective tools to highlight work by artists that might otherwise be ignored, or do they further ostracize minority artists? Mariane Ibrahim, whose eponymous gallery is in Seattle, sees 1:54 as a "family style" event, where her fellow dealers are more like supportive friends than cutthroat competitors. "I invited myself," she said of her participation in the fair, explaining how 1:54 founder El Glaoui initially contacted her about purchasing an artwork. Instead of completing the sale, Ibrahim finagled an invitation to be among the list of featured galleries in the fair's first London outing. As for 1:54 being too self-selecting, Ibrahim sees an African art-focused fair "as way to start, to get your foot in the door."