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BRUNEAF-BOAF ’09: Solitude, Scant Sales, not a Quantum of Solace

by Susi, 22 August 2009

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Fine tribal and Asian art gets more attention now than ever, but where are the avid buyers of yesteryear? If the (almost) concurrent BRUNEAF and BOAF fairs in Brussels this June were any indication, there’s plenty of solitude for art afficionados to quietly contemplate the works on offer (like Davide Manfredi’s Modang panel, above).

Lately there’s also plenty of solitude for the dealers at tribal art fairs to meditate on their fate and what the future holds. Andres Moraga (below, with Clive Loveless), apparently had ample time to sample a pseudo stogie at Chez Richard on the Sablon, where the fair’s experts, organisers, cognoscenti, collectors, dealers and groupies rub shoulders with the rogues, ruffians and renegades of the tribal trade daily, weather permitting. Weather does not always permit in Brussels, and this year it did. Still, few buyers ventured forth.

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For those who feel acronymed-out, BRUNEAF = Brussels Non-European Art Fair, one of the most respected and active international events for African, Asian and Oceanic tribal arts. And BOAF = Brussels Oriental Art Fair, a relative newcomer that looked promising for a few years as it built patronage. Both fairs this year, and also the (almost) concurrent BAAF (Brussels Ancient Art Fair), were subdued events in comparison to years past.

Blame it on the economy, or consider that perhaps the art fairs paradigm itself is flawed or falling behind the times. The concept of fairs perhaps requires revisiting. Seeing that collectors and dealers are not re-visiting fairs in great numbers, one feels forced to consider whether it’s not just the economy that’s changing here. Ways of studying, finding, viewing and collecting tribal art are also changing. Those who assume that fairs are feeling lackluster just because of the economy may be misreading the message of the omen birds.

This is not a review of the Brussels fairs (which I should have written months ago), but rather a musing on the shifting shape of the tribal art trade. There are many forces at play. Auctions. Internet flattening the tiers of information transfer. The ease of travel to every backwater of the world, where Aman Resorts and luxury tented camps now abound. Questions concerning cultural property that may or may not be pertinent to raise. Rumblings among the dealers themselves that the fairs paradigm is problematic. The proliferation of fakes, false information, faux scholarship and malicious gossip in tribal art circles that leaves a bad taste in absolutely everyone’s mouth – – collectors, scholars, dealers and institutions alike. It’s a complex conundrum.

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We participate in fairs, visit them, and read reviews from various sources, including Tribalmania, a site put up by a passionate and compassionate eccentric, who goes to great lengths to share information and images generously. Put an RSS feed on Tribalmania. All images here courtesy of Tribalmania, of course. Including my favourite little vignette of BRUNEAF, which speaks of the ineluctable absurdity of it all (above). That’s the impish Renaud Vanuxem with mask, jacket and stuffed critter. Poetic.

    2 Comments


    • I agree with you that there are less visitors than previous years, but still people are passionate, maybe also price levels has to be lowered for lesser quality pieces, and dealers should put more efforts in educating the clients. If you come to Paris come visit me and let's have a little talk, just follow the link to get my details http://www.african-arts.info/galerie_de_buci.htm Nice blog, continue the good work, David Norden

        • Susi
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        • August 30, 2009

        Thanks for the comment, David. You're right about the passion level staying high, even while fair attendance levels are relatively low. In fact, I think that the level of passion, awareness and serious interest in "arts premiers" is increasing rapidly. The increase in understanding of Southeast Asian material culture is tremendous. Witness, for example, the creation of the Pacific Asia department at Yale (Ruth Barnes), the new Southeast Asia post at the Met (John Guy). Dealers should indeed put more efforts into educating the clients. At the same time, I feel dealers must also put more efforts into educating themselves. Many dealers haven't done their homework, so to speak, either in the field or in the library. And only few dealers have the training to assess objects and field-gathered information in a critical way. This leads to a lot of misinformation, which doesn't help the tribal art world in the least. Quite the opposite. Would love to visit you in Paris. We can't make it to Parcours this year, as we've just opened our new space in Bali. Next year, I hope!

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