During our last visit at the BRAFA Art Fair in Brussels, the African art objects showcased by Didier Claes captured our imagination. He tells us about his peculiar path, made of courage and passion.
Born in Kinshasa to a Congolese mother and a Belgian father, Didier Claes travels the country as a young child together with his father, an art dealer and a scientific expert for Congo’s national museums. He grows up surrounded with authentic African objects and learns to distinguish cultures, traditions and techniques. After settling in Belgium in his late teenage years, from 1989 he starts travelling alone to Zaire, where he gains further insight thanks to the many dialects he speaks. Although art objects grow rarer and rarer in Africa, he firmly believes that there are still “gems” to find in the wilderness. With his flawless eyes and vast culture, he discovers a unique piece which makes him well known on the market of African art. Today, the Didier Claes gallery is located at a prestigious venue in the Ixelles district of Brussels, and prides itself with a clientele including several collectors and international museums alike.
Didier Claes, how does the healthcare crisis we are living impact on the art market ?
It had a strong impact, and it still has, since we are far from the end of this crisis. In some cases, it has actually just begun. The functioning of galleries has been directly affected. On one side, visits rarely happen. On the other, collectors, amateurs and dealers are not allowed to travel at this time, whether they are owners of contemporary art galleries meeting artists or dealers looking for objects in the greatest collections all around the world. As a consequence, the market has remarkably slowed down. Unfortunately, with safety restrictions still in place, it will be extremely hard to establish the actual impact this has had.
What role does art play in periods of social fragility ?
We need art to remain close, to keep in touch. For what concerns me, art has always been a way to find solutions and question myself. These hard times often turn out to be great inspiration moments for artists.
During lockdown, how did you keep in touch with your collectors ?
During lockdown, dealers had to double their creative efforts in order to somehow keep in touch with their collectors, and to offer them pieces via video-calls, sometimes even customized presentations to meet the collectors and amateurs’ expectations.
After the pandemic, will the art market be able to go back to how it was before?
Or do you think this is a chance to develop different strategies?
A new world always awakes from every crisis, even if human beings can adjust, and resume their old habits. The art market, just like all other major economic markets, will learn its lessons from this pandemic. It has particularly affected working strategies, which have evolved, as it has been the case with the web. Those who were already using it before have maybe leveraged on it more. Many of those we were not have decided to start working more with it. The way we learn and perceive things will probably be much different.
Your experience in the field of African art leads you to travel often. What were your most remarkable discoveries ?
Just like all other art fields, African art entails frequent travels, both to purchase new pieces and to learn more, especially by visiting museums all around the world. However, my trips to Africa are almost out of pleasure, since all African art pieces of a certain quality and period cannot be found on site any longer. Purchases mainly happen in Western countries and in the United States, by meeting collectors who were able to buy these objects in certain past periods and would like to resell them today.
Regarding my most important discovery, it is undoubtedly the voodoo doll that I found in the possession of an old Belgian family a few years ago. As to my latest great discovery, it is a key piece that I found at a museum, but I cannot reveal anything else at the moment.
Every year, you gallery sets up an exhibition of African art at the BRAFA Art Fair in Brussels. How do you select the pieces ?
Personally, BRAFA, a prominent event both in Belgium and abroad, is my favorite fair. My gallery has been attending for several years, this year will be our 20th edition. BRAFA is a not-to-be-missed meeting opportunity, since Belgium is one of the cradles of African art, and collectors are many.
At every edition, I present a themed exhibit, which takes several years of preparation before it is ready to be showcased.
As to selecting classic pieces, I would say that there is not any leitmotif set a priori. I select works as I find them, as I meet them.
DIDIER CLAES Bruxelles
BRAFA ART FAIR
BRAFA IN THE GALLERIES 27-31.1.2021