By: Robert Ross
From June 3–7 Brussels is once again the locus of excitement for connoisseurs of all things tribal and ethnographic. Now in its 19th year the Brussels Non-European Art Fair will turn one of Europe’s major tribal art cities into a hub of activity, with world-class dealers featuring African, Oceanic, Indonesian, pre-Columbian, Asiatic and Aboriginal art treasures. While the most significant offerings are sculptural, including figures, masks and fetishes, other objects of merit include weapons, jewelry, coins and textiles. Materials range from wood to gold, terra-cotta to tapa cloth and iron to ivory.
What began in 1983 as a group of half a dozen dealers has become the annual meeting place for about 50 of the world’s best, from Europe and North America. Galleries will be open throughout the famous art dealers’ district of the city, the Place du Grand Sablon, and many of them become temporary hosts for dealer colleagues from abroad. Belgian dealers account for about half of the participants, while American dealers include TAD Tribal Art of Santa Fe, N.M., Dimondstein Tribal Arts of Los Angeles, Bruce Frank Primitive Art and Joseph G. Gerena Fine Art of New York and Michael Hamson of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.
Brussels dealer Patrick Mestdagh, the fair’s president since 2005, is enthusiastic about the venue, which he compares advantageously to Paris’ gallery trail, Parcours des Mondes, which takes place in September. “Paris will remain Paris,” he says. “Brussels has BRUNEAF, with an easygoing, welcoming personality. You can go around the Sablon and see a collector from San Francisco talking with a dealer from Madrid and a collector from Paris. Everyone is relaxed and enjoying himself, and that’s something we work hard to do.”
Asked about the health of the market, Mestdagh put things in perspective. “In the tribal market top pieces remain a good value, and primitive art is not suffering much, even in difficult times. A good piece remains a good piece and will maintain its value. And compared to a Van Gogh, Rembrandt or masterpiece Picasso, tribal art is very reasonably priced.” He points out that the entire collection of Frieda and Milton Rosenthal, which sold last November at Sotheby’s New York and contained great pieces with great provenance, went for less than the price of a Damien Hirst shark. But regardless of the cost, says Mestdagh, “you can enjoy great pieces when quality is there. As a dealer I follow my own instinct and my own emotions. You must buy with your eyes, not your wallet.”
Los Angeles-based African tribal art dealer Joshua Dimondstein calls the fair an educational experience for collectors both up-and-coming and experienced. “BRUNEAF presents an opportunity to be immersed in the heart of the tribal art world in a fun and unbelievably beautiful setting. Brussels is a city with a long history of dealers and collectors, in addition to having a mainstream recognition of this great art form. Having had knowledge of tribal art for well over 100 years has made Brussels a great frame of reference for fine examples.”
Complementing the dealer offerings is a unique exhibition titled Congo Mythical Masks, curated by Brussels dealer Patric Didier Claes and organized in partnership with the gallery of Pierre Bergé & Associés. Thirty rare and exceptional masks from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at present in private collections, offer a rare glimpse at some of Africa’s most powerful works of sculpture.