It’s bitterly cold outside, the wind cuts straight through you, but the Brussels Art Fair (BRAFA, 26 January – 03 February) at the Tour & Taxis offers sweet reprise. Now in its 64th edition, 133 dealers and galleries presented thousands of works offering, as described in the press release, “something for every taste and every need, for every purse, for the most rigorous collector or the simple beginner“, from contemporary art through to 20th-century furniture.
Among the 133 were thirteen dealers of ‘Primitive and Pre-Columbian Art’ (it’s 2019, we must stop using ‘primitive’ as a label for art… please), down from the fifteen, we counted in 2018. At this year’s edition, newcomers Martin Doustar (Brussels) and Charles-Wesley Hourdé (Paris) joined Didier Claes (Brussels), Pierre Dartevelle (Brussels), Deletaille Gallery (Brussels), Porfirius Kunstkammer (Brussels), Yann Ferrandin (Paris), Finch & Co (London), Bernard de Grunne Tribal Fine Arts (Brussels), Guilhem Montagut Gallery (Barcelona), Serge Schoffel – Art Premier (Brussels), Galerie Schoffel de Fabry (Paris), and Grusenmeyer – Woliner (Brussels). Galerie Ratton (Paris), Galerie Monbrison (Paris), and Galerie Jacques Germain (Montreal) were not at the fair this year.
On everyone’s lips was talk of restitution and the impact the debate would have on the private art market. Some remarked on the negative impact it is already having on the market with buyers moving to other fields of collecting while others see the slight depression in the African art market due to “current geopolitical [and financial] turmoil.”
But we visited the fair to see the art, to discover new works, and to revel in the fact that historical African art continues to strengthen its presence at the fair. So what were the highlights from this year’s instalment?
"They produced too much!", "there's too much on offer", "it doesn't transcend African art." Those are some of the comments you'd expect to hear about Yoruba art.
Not one to shy away from a challenge—see his 2014 collection of Fon Vodun art—Serge Schoffel aimed to prove the naysayers wrong. For this year's edition of BRAFA, Schoffel gathered a collection of over thirty Yoruba bowls, masks, figures, and staffs. Assembled over five years, the 'Orisha Yoruba' collection included a shrine figure in the form of an ose Sango thought to be carved by the Master of the Owu Shango Shrine, and a female bowl-bearer, said to be carved by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise, and once in the collections of Ralph Nash, William Brill, and Samir & Mina Borro. But it wasn't just masterpieces with show-stopper prices on display. Schoffel also had a number of agere ifa bowls priced below €10,000 to attract entry-level collectors.
Didier Claes put on a spectacular show. This year, with 'Kisanola: The Art of Hair', he curated a collection of 33 Chokwe, Yaka, Luba and Lélé combs from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The booth, designed by René Bouchara, was in the shape of a comb and boy did it look sexy. As one visitor put it, Didier Claes had "one of the best & coolest displays I’ve seen in a long time... and I’ve been to countless art & antique fairs!"
Priced between €5,000 and €30,000, more than half of the combs were gone on the collectors' preview day. The combs would once have been used by those in power—the number of teeth indicating the society within which the object is associated, the middle platform of the comb incised with geometric patterns, and the top of the comb decorated with carved faces, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures.
One thing that struck us this year was how much more daring the dealers were. Yes, the 'classics' still took pride of place—Bernard de Grunne had a Fang Ntumu eyema byeri ancestor figure once in the collections of Charles Ratton, Louis Carré, Charles Gillet, and André Schoeller, and exhibited at the 'Exposition d'Art Africain et d'Art Océanien' show at the Galerie Pigalle in 1930—but so too did little known works of art.
Bernard de Grunne also presented an original group of monumental Dinka statues from Sudan. The fair's 2019 theme was 'Art Without Frontiers' to highlight art from every continent and every culture. Inline with BRAFA's theme, de Grunne worked to prove that "the aesthetic qualities of these works, of which four are still in the collection of David Henrion, deserves further study and publication. The attribution of this group of sculptures to the Dinka came as a surprising discovery." The figures are characterised by their miniature faces, large elongated cylindrical bodies, and long legs at more than half of the sculpture's length.
Newcomer, Martin Doustar was not a shrinking violet. Bold yet tasteful, Doustar was courageous in his choices for his first showing at BRAFA. His stand packed a number of punches but the catalogue 'Über der Kopf' left us a little bruised. Doustars unique eye was evident in much of the art on offer—a Bamum tu ngünga funerary headdress, an elegantly reduced Bura head tested to date from between 1100-1400 AD, and an extremely rare Bamileke atwonzen beaded head from Cameroon. Heres to the young ones!