By all accounts, the 65th edition of the Brussels Art Fair (BRAFA, 26 January – 02 February) was a resounding success, despite some of the drama that surrounded this year’s show. Exhibitors of classic African art at the Brussels fair, which closed last Sunday, reported strong sales. This may have been due to the record number of visitors to the fair this year. A huge crowd of 68,000 people walked across the large coloured lines on the carpet—the biggest contingent of committed collectors than in past years. It could also be because BRAFA is unique in the way it designs the show floor. Instead of grouping specialist areas together, stands exhibiting African art were mixed harmoniously with those that offered jewellery, contemporary art, and furniture. The result created moments of unexpected discovery for visitors.
The consensus among dealers and buyers was that this year’s event was a success. Could this be a sign that Brussels is becoming the new centre for classic African art?
“Our exhibition was appreciated at BRAFA,” Gerolamo Vigorelli of Dalton Somaré (Milan), told ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA. Participating at BRAFA for the first time, the gallery reported that “among the sales were an important Kota-Obamba janus reliquary guardian figure [dating from the mid 19th century] and an extremely fine We/Gueré mask.” The galleries went a bit Kota-mad this year—almost every stand showing African art displayed a Kota mbulu ngulu figure, presumably because of its more universal appeal. The Dalton Somaré Kota figure sold for a six-figure sum.
Joining Dalton Somaré at BRAFA 2020 were Didier Claes (Brussels), Pierre Dartevelle (Brussels), Deletaille Gallery (Brussels), Porfirius Kunstkammer (Brussels), Yann Ferrandin (Paris), Finch & Co (London), Guilhem Montagut Gallery (Barcelona), Adrian Schlag – Tribal Art Classics (Brussels), Serge Schoffel – Art Premier (Brussels), Galerie Schoffel de Fabry (Paris), Charles-Wesley Hourdé (Paris), and Grusenmeyer – Woliner (Brussels).
Adrian Schlag (Brussels) had one of the strongest booths at the fair, showing an outstanding Krou mask with a forehead and chin that jut out in alignment with its protruding tubular eyes. Another highlight at the stand was a Baule ndoma portrait mask (presented by Galerie Olivier Castellano in the Parcours des Mondes 2019 catalogue) which sold for a reported €280,000. Also worthy of note was a beautifully carved red Lwena tobacco mortar with incredibly thin walls (and the missionaries didn’t get to his bits) that seemed to make its way to the Pierre Dartevelle stand once the fair opened to the general public.
Didier Claes reported that he sold “80% of the objects [including] all the important objects.” Among the important objects were a Kota reliquary figure, sold by Sotheby’s last year during its Marceau Rivière Collection sale for €37,500 (including the buyer’s premium). Also sold was a sublime Baule asie usu bush spirit figure once in the Georges Stoecklin collection.
Serge Schoffel was one of the few galleries staging a thematic show, this time on forty-odd sacred aboriginal churinga pieces from Australia, of which about 80% were sold. Of the African artworks on display, most of the remaining Yoruba works from last year’s themed show were sold including an agere ifa divination cup, a pair of ere ibeji twin figures and a few ogboni/oshugbo onile shrine figures. Also sold were an Attié figure from Ivory Coast and a janus Bamileke mask from Cameroon.
Yann Ferrandin also presented a themed show—an elegant collection of spoons from different periods and cultures (although his Dan/Kran mask stood out as very fascinating)—as did Charles-Wesley Hourdé with ‘Wild Spirits’, a stand devoted to animal masks from West Africa. Charles-Wesley Hourdé sold a number of these masks with prices ranging from between €4,000 to €25,000.
Probably one of the most talked-about work was a magnificent Kuba cup at Grusenmeyer – Woliner (the missionaries didn’t get to him either) that an eagle-eyed ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA subscriber spotted as the one sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for €147,000 after we posted it on Instagram. A masterpiece in every sense of the word, this intricately carved cup, reserved for the use by members of the Kuba royal family, is of museum quality. Similar examples can be found at the Rietberg Museum in Zürich and the Etnografiska Museet in Stockholm.
Missing from this year’s iteration of the fair was Bernard de Grunne with his usual thematic exhibitions. But we’re sure to be in for a treat with his booth at TEFAF (07 – 15 March). He’s already teased many with an exceptional Songye kifwebe mask. Pierre Dartevelle created a stand with artworks made by artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to mark his last participation in BRAFA.
While not at BRAFA, we would be remiss not to mention ‘A Golden Line’ showing at 59pm (59 rue Van Eyck). “We’ve already sold half of the pieces. People are so happy when they see the line,” said Najwa Borro of the Brussels gallery. The exhibition brings together 32 Akan gold jewellery items selected for their visual strength and quality of realisation. The works are said to “demonstrate the mastering of waxed thread technique and introduce us to a specific and local notion of beauty. This line is the result of the will of sharing an aspect of the Akan culture in a place they wouldn’t be expected to be seen.” The exhibition ends on 29 February.
Strong sales, a passionate collector base, and galleries that grow in strength with each edition made BRAFA 2020 a wonderful fair making it one of the ‘must-visits’ in the African art calendar.