Now in its 63rd edition, BRAFA (Brussels, 27 January—4 February), one of the world’s oldest art fairs, shows no sign of slowing down. With a record 134 international galleries, the fair also brings together 15 stands with African art (we counted). At this year’s edition, new exhibitors of classic African art Guilhem Montagut Gallery (Barcelona) and Galerie Ratton (Paris), join veterans Didier Claes (Brussels), Pierre Dartevelle (Brussels), Deletaille Gallery (Brussels), Porfirius Kunstkammer (Brussels), Yann Ferrandin (Paris), Finch & Co (London), Galerie Jacques Germain (Montreal), Bernard de Grunne Tribal Fine Arts (Brussels), Grusenmeyer – Woliner (Brussels), Galerie Monbrison (Brussels), Serge Schoffel – Art Premier (Brussels), and Galerie Schoffel de Fabry (Paris). The art and design outfit, Galerie La Beau (Brussels) also had African art on display—a Boli figure from Mali and a set of Mbanja weapons from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Where Parcours des Mondes 2017 was all about themes—the ability to see a number of pieces from a single corpus—BRAFA is about prestige. The fair presents an eclectic mix of artworks all at a certain quality, rarity… and price. Before exhibiting, dealers are said to undergo a gruelling vetting process by almost one hundred independent experts (the number of African art experts is unknown). Mention prestige and one might think quality, however for some of the African art dealers at the show, prestige means provenance. Exceptional pieces with equally impressive provenances were on display at various stands.
Yann Ferrandin has on display a superb Yombe nkisi power figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that once belonged to Denise and Jacques Schwob. Guilhem Montagut has a Chokwe staff from Angola once owned by Jacques Kerchache, the renowned collector and patron behind the opening of the Pavillon des Sessions du Louvre in 2000 and the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in 2006. Monbrison presents a uniquely slender Fon bocio figure from Benin that was once in the collection of Georges de Miré. About Georges de Miré, Sotheby’s found that “On 16 December 1931, after a fourteen day exhibition at the gallery of Charles Ratton, the Georges de Miré Collection of Sculptures anciennes d’Afrique et d’Amérique was sold at the Hôtel Drouot by Maître Bellier, attended by experts Charles Ratton and Louis Carré. Photographs taken during the exhibition reveal the astonishing quality of the pieces collected by Georges de Miré during a pioneering era in France.” Georges de Miré also once owned the ‘Black Venus‘ that’s now in the Dapper collection.
The one dealer that focuses on a theme is Didier Claes. The gallery of the fair’s Vice Chairman displays 14 masks from the Yaka ethnic group of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Said to have taken six years to build, the collection highlights the various types of makunda helmet masks used during initiations that transition male children into adulthood. The masks are unique in their completeness and obviously popular with fair attendees—eight were sold during the collector previews on Friday!
Others have selected pieces that maintain their classic appeal and popularity in Brussels. Mumuye iagalagana figures from Nigeria (Yann Ferrandin || Serge Schoffel), Fang eyema bieri figures from Gabon (Jacques Germain || Schoffel de Fabry || Ratton), and Kota boho na bwete reliquary guardian figures from Gabon (Guilhem Montagut || Yann Ferrandin || Jacques Germain || Ratton || Grusenmeyer – Woliner ||Bernard de Grunne).
Of note is the powerful, badass Songye nkisi bust. What a dude! He currently sits at the stand of Dartevelle. His gallery founded in the 1960s, when African art began to arrive in Paris from Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon. His was the first gallery specialising in classic African art to open in the Sablon antiques district in Brussels.
A collection of figures we instantly fell in love with were the three exquisite Makonde masimanu figures at Bernard de Grunne’s stand. Whoa these ladies are something aren’t they. We’ll let de Grunne’s video about these ‘Venuses’ do the talking.
We’ve been pretty positive about the event and with good reason. The fair also presents the chance to see much more than African art, a welcome reprieve for the reluctant husband in attendance, the Leonardo ninja turtle costume at Theatrum Mundi’s stand kept him entertained. But next comes the less than positive.
Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, President of the fair, encourages visitors to “never be afraid to ask questions! This idea of sharing knowledge, of exchange is very important in my view. It lends the particular charm to a fair like ours, and contributes substantially to its conviviality.” Sharing is supposedly the keyword for the year.
However, when we asked a dealer what a specific piece was used for in its traditional context, his response, “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter”. Does that speak to the type of attendee he expects to encounter at the fair? Does his response speak to his lack of knowledge? Either way, it DOES matter. The history of a piece (before it arrived to Europe) is part of its story. It’s part of the romance of African art—that pieces weren’t created as ‘art’, they were used in everyday life, used to connect with ancestors, used to ensure the welfare of their given community. And that story should be told.
So, with eight days to go, here’s what to expect from BRAFA at Tour & Taxis, Brussels. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to challenge dealers because ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA—’knowledge is good’.
BRAFA runs until 04 February 2018.
We spent time with Tribal Art Magazine, guiding them through the stunning art on display at BRAFA. Check out the video produced by Tribal Art Magazine and edited by Roar Atelier.