In conversation with a classic African art master dealer

Piero Bisello  -  July 28, 2017

Didier Claes gives his perspective on marketing antiquities from Africa, the institutional clientele and the relationship between classic African art and contemporary art.

Belgian-Congolese Didier Claes is one of the protagonists of the Brussels scene of antiquities dealers, a scene with international reputation supported by important international events such as the antiquities fair BRAFA. Claes’ expertise is classic African art from Central and West countries of the continent, a field in which he has been active both as a great cognoscente and successful dealer since the early 1990s. He has recently moved his gallery space from the Sablon area of Brussels—the one where most antiquities galleries would be situated—to the so-called uptown area of the Belgian capital, arguably the most important district in town for contemporary art dealers. We met with him in early July to ask a few questions about his way to do business in the market of classic African art and his peculiar interest in contemporary art.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Did art play an important role in your childhood?

Didier Claes: Yes, absolutely. My father worked for art museums and to some extent he was also dealing art. In my childhood I was surrounded by artworks and I would listen to all the stories about art the grownups around me would tell.

As to dealing art, how did you start working in this field?

I consider myself a self-taught art dealer. I built my skills and knowledge by practice, by trial and error. So, strictly speaking, I don’t have a background in art dealing. I also consider myself an old-fashion dealer, despite the fact that I’m only 40. You see, people in the field used to think that one needed to be old to be a good art dealer. Yet, the world has changed, what counts today is one’s skills rather than one’s age—after all, even the current president of France is only 40 years old.

You have had a gallery for more than 15 years, is that correct?

Yes, that is correct. Today, because of all the fairs that exist and new channels that allow me to be present in the market, I could even continue my work without a gallery. And yet, it is absolutely fundamental for me to have a gallery, a physical space I can consider my home base.

Besides private collectors, how much of your clientele consists of museums or other institutions?

Very little. I used to deal more often with institutional clients, but nowadays I consider museums and other institutions a saturated market. This is because most of the institutional collections seem already established. Moreover, I think that it is fundamental in my job to make artworks circulate, and when you sell to an institution you know for a fact that the artwork will no longer circulate, it will be taken off the market for good. However, all these issues with the institutional market would not matter so much to me in the case of African museums, since most of them have small collections or none at all, and selling to them would also be a question of helping them build a national heritage. Unfortunately, I cannot say I have any African museums among my clients at the moment.

Do you think African museums, especially in West and Central Africa, are being more active towards building their collections of classic African art?

As much as I wish this were the case, I think they are not, or at least not enough. I must admit this is a difficult topic for me, since making sure African museums could contribute to building a national heritage is a cause I want to fight for. You see, for well-known reasons West and Central African countries were not allowed to put their cultures at the centre. I would like to see this situation changing, both as a professional working in this field and as a patriot. I am convinced the change must start with the state, which needs to work on the educational system and the promotion of the heritage also through museums. But state intervention won’t be enough, since a culture of private collections and an active market are also necessary. Perhaps some examples like the Zinsou Foundation in Benin or all the great activities of collector Sindika Dokolo in Angola show us that things are changing. And yet, I do think we are still far away from an ideal situation.

Do you think the case of the recently opened Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town is a similar example?

Perhaps. However I consider South Africa a very different reality from Central and West Africa. There is a way in which South Africa is like the USA of Africa, which might mean they are ahead on a few things.

Speaking about museums, here in Belgium the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren is now being renovated after it was closed for its inadequacy in representing the Belgian colonial past. The new museum is now due to open in 2018. What is your opinion about what has been done so far?

First of all, one needs to understand that the Museum of Tervuren was created to show Congo as the property of Leopold II king of Belgium. It was essentially a museum with scientific purposes and aimed to represent Congolese culture merely as the product of the Belgian colony. Now that these purposes can no longer be the ones of that museum, the question remains whether that grim colonial history simply needs to be erased. What is sure is that the artworks in the collection of Tervuren Museum—which is the most important in the world for what concerns classic pieces from Congo— need to be shown as artworks and not as mere curiosities like they were displayed in the past. It is impossible to say in advance whether the new museum will fulfill the expectations, but what I can say is that Belgium should have perhaps thought about an entirely new museum for classic art from Africa to be put next to the other museums of Western old masters located in the centre of the city of Brussels. The Museum of Tervuren will after all still be in Tervuren, which is a small village far away from the city centre of the Belgian capital.

Some commentators say that it is almost impossible to buy original classic artworks in Africa today as most of them have been sold abroad or stolen. Do you agree with this statement?

Yes I do. Perhaps it is unfortunate for those who still think they can buy original artworks of classic art in Africa, but the reality is that it is almost impossible to do so today. Years of foreign control is the cause of this situation.

You have recently moved your commercial space close to some of the major contemporary art galleries in town and for the second year in a row you will participate to Brussels Gallery Weekend, which is an event dedicated to contemporary art. What prompted you to be close to the contemporary art scene?

As an art lover, I have always been opened to different artistic expressions. I am convinced that every art lover should look at different art forms with an open mind, even if the first impression of an artwork or art form is negative. I used to hear people thinking that contemporary art was a vulgar and merely commercial trickery—even not real art to some extent. I don’t think this is the case. One needs to be interested in the contemporary, since every epoch is contemporary and contemporary art is historically important as any other art, including classic art from Africa. This of course doesn’t mean that every artwork, whether classic or contemporary, is equally good. Yet, every lover of art must take contemporary art into consideration. Besides, I am very interested in the link between contemporary art and classic African art, in how the latter is somehow present as an inspiration across very different contemporary art scenes, from the early 20th century until today.

We heard you are also a contemporary art collector. Which artists do you have in your collection and what are your criteria to buy a contemporary artwork?

Collector is a big word. I am rather a sort of amateur buyer of contemporary art. I fall in love with a piece and I buy it. As a collector—if you want to use this word—I really like to be satisfied with inexpensive pieces as well as more demanding ones. I have artworks as diverse as a painting by the American minimalist Kenneth Noland, or works by the Belgian Walter Leblanc, pieces by Jean Dubuffet from France and Wifredo Lam from Cuba, a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, and a painting by Congolese Chéri Samba, and more. As you see, a very variegated collection. Yet, if have really have to find a criterium for me to like an artwork, I would say that the artwork I look for is the one where the humanity of the artist is visible. I cannot know all the artists personally, therefore I need to know them through their work, to engage in a real human relationship with them in their artworks. We should not forget that there is a human being behind every artwork.

Do you find some differences between contemporary art collectors and collectors of antiques?

Nowadays, it is hard to make this distinction. I think collectors are no longer these people interested in only one specific type of art. Years ago, I remember meeting a collector of classic African art who possessed only a few things for his everyday life but thousands of classic African statues. That age of the solitary, specialised collector surrounded by artworks of the same type is gone. Today collectors are more interested in broadening their research to find the artworks that strike them, mixing different styles in their collections. Perhaps I am myself a quintessential example of this new attitude in collecting.

Can you tell us about the future exhibitions and projects at the gallery?

I am very happy to announce that for Brussels Gallery Weekend 2017 happening this September, I will present an exhibition called AfroPunk, which will mix classic statues such as Pende Masks with some contemporary artworks by South African artist Kendell Geers. I love how engaged his work is and how he could draw inspiration from classic African art from my gallery to produce his new pieces. This exhibition will also be a collaboration with the contemporary art gallery of Rodolphe Janssen, who will display some classic African art next to contemporary artworks.