Collector Spotlight

Arno Declercq, Belgium

November 06, 2016 By: Adenike Cosgrove

22-year-old interior designer Arno Declercq of Whyfon Home, has been collecting classic African art for six years. For Arno, tribal art is a hobby, a passion, a livelihood—from his career as an interior designer incorporating classic African art into his schemes, to the integration of tribal art deigns in his tattoos. We spent time with Arno to discuss his thoughts on how the market can get more young collectors inspired by what some have coined a ‘dying industry’. Arno demonstrates that classic African art is far from dead… but work must be done to make it relevant to a new generation.

What ignited your interest in classic African art?

My interest in tribal art was first sparked by my father’s 20-year-old collection. His collection began when he came across an object that was so unusual, so different from anything he’d ever seen before, that he had to buy it. Little did he know that he had just purchased his first fake African art object. But this initial contact made him obsessed to learn all that he could about the field, grow a tribal art collection and find authentic pieces so that I could one day see the difference between fakes and objects used by the appropriate ethnic groups.

As I began to get more into the art scene (after studying for degrees in Fine Art, Architecture & Interior Design), I realised that there is a connection between contemporary sculpture and tribal art forms. I want people to realise that there is modern beauty in African art so now I try my hardest to incorporate tribal art into my interior designs.

Arno's Tattoos
"Maria statue with a Toma mask as its face (stands for my personal fetish) and in her hand, the Fon symbol for Hevioso (sign of life and death). The French bulldog holds a baby rattle in the form of the logo of my interior design business, a Fon Tronc."
Arno's Tattoos
"Hevioso in the Fon culture in this tattoo is a twin fetish drawn with a lock. It was the first tribal object my mother bought for my father."

"After many travels and studies of African art, I think it is very important that the cultures and the art they produce are not lost."

"Picture of my father and I during a journey to Burkina Faso to visit the Lobi ethnic group."
"A Lobi village interior (April 2010)."
"Photograph of the king of Dahomey (Ahosu in the Fon language) with his royal umbrella."
"A rare late 20th century European umbrella (as pictured in the photograph) with Fon Dahomey Abomey signs and symbols hand stitched onto it. Provenance: Field collected by my father in September 2016!"

As a young collector yourself, how do you think the market can make the next generation of collectors aware of and excited about classic African art?

There are three key things I think are needed to raise awareness of tribal art for the next generation of potential collectors. First is education. The younger generation don’t know anything about African cultures and their art because there’s very little focus and attention given to it in schools. For example, during my Fine Art studies, we heard a lot about Picasso, and his work. We all found it incredible how Picasso was ahead of his time, but we never heard about his inspiration - African art. It was never mentioned that he was inspired by masks and figures from Baga or Pende ethnic groups for example.

The second is integration. For me, when I was exposed to tribal art, it was in isolation - at art fairs or at galleries. We need to see African art integrated into timeless and stylish interiors - interiors that include and even highlight tribal art. We need to show that these ‘foreign objects’ can be incredibly beautiful and can add value to an interior.

Collection of African Figures
Whyfon Home Interior

The final thing that needs to change in the market is affordability. When we do get exposed to tribal art, we usually only see fake / decorative pieces at flea markets or very expensive pieces at the major art fairs. Not everyone my age can afford top quality pieces with an extensive provenance. Dealers should offer all categories of nice affordable objects (that have been used in their cultures) through to museum quality works so that younger collectors can start a collection.

I have quite a few friends interested in tribal art. They go to Parcour Des Mondes and similar fairs but leave disheartened and almost never come home with a beautiful object because everything is simply too expensive. These fairs need to offer something for the 22-year-old. Pieces in the range of 100, 200 or 300 Euros – they may come back with their parents and buy additional pieces for 3,000 Euros or more. Sometimes you have to step back and invest in the future.

Related Articles

Dealer Spotlight: Ann de Pauw, Belgium
Collector Spotlight: William Harper, United States
Asen: Dahomey History and Forged Memories of Iron

Share this