Brussels-based art dealer Didier Claes specialises in African Art, his passion for art stemming from his childhood in the Congo. An art dealer for more than 20 years, he opened his own gallery in 2002. Here Didier Claes speaks with us about African Art’s place in the current international art market and gives us some insight into his journey as a dealer.

Thank you very much for answering our questions. It is common knowledge that American and European collectors represent a major portion of your buyers. In recent years have you noticed a difference in the buyers, where they are from and the art they are buying?

The global art market is still mainly composed of American and European buyers but I have noticed in recent years that African collectors are beginning to take an interest in the art market. They are predominantly interested in modern and contemporary art.

You have a highly regarded Congolese collection that you started at an early age. Can you tell us more about your collection, and what prompted you to collect? What difficulties have you faced along the way?

I would not really call it a collection as such, I am more of a dealer than a collector. My passion for art was influenced by my childhood in Africa, where I spent my time amongst African objects collected by my father, who was a scientist and worked for the national museums of the Congo. I think that one of the main difficulties I encountered as a dealer was making a place for myself in a very closed environment. There were many difficulties, but I have never stopped persevering. My collecting journey started in the USA before I settled in Brussels.

Didier Claes Gallery, Brussels
Didier Claes Gallery, Brussels

In the last decades, the African Tribal Art market has drastically grown and evolved, with collectors such as Sindika Dokolo and Eric Edwards playing an important role in the dynamism and growth of the African art market. How has this rapid change affected you and your collecting strategy, have you found the growth of the market beneficial?

African Art has always attracted a passionate audience. However, there are always crazes in the art market and African Art is no exception. I do not think that it is a trend, on the contrary, I believe that African Art has found its place in the art market and will continue to evolve and grow. In addition, new methods of acquiring art and more media channels all make the market more accessible. I would also add that auction houses have for some years highlighted the sale of African Art and which has led to increased media attention.

What makes your collection unique? Can you tell us a bit more about specific items of note in your collection?

As I said before I do not consider myself a collector but more of an art dealer specialising in African Art. I strive to find rare pieces, with true authenticity and above all, quality.

In one of your previous interviews, you stated that there has been a dramatic increase in the interest and value of Congolese art in the global art market. What are the distinctive traits of Congolese art and why is work from the Congo proving to be so popular?

Indeed, Congolese art has taken on a prominent place in the market, compared to other styles such as court art from Republic of Côte d’Ivoire for example.

There are multiple reasons behind this trend. First of all, it should be noted that the Congo has about ten regions occupied by more than 300 ethnic groups and almost as many sub-ethnic groups. Therefore, the country offers a great stylistic diversity. Congolese art is also appreciated for its untamed artistic style, it is neither precise or controlled. Let’s not forget that Congolese art has inspired many European artists like Picasso. Lovers of modern and contemporary art like to create connections between styles.

What are your predictions for the African Art market, more specifically the future of Tribal and Contemporary African Art?

Regarding Contemporary African Art, it seems to be moving in the right direction. In the United States, England and France, the market and institutions finally recognise its importance through fairs such as 1:54 in New York and London or AKAA in Paris, as well as major exhibitions including Beauty Congo in 2015 at the Cartier Foundation. The recognition of Contemporary African Art has been a gradual process, which bodes well for the future. In the wake of highly renowned artists such as Barthélémy Toguo, William Kentridge, Pascale Marthine Tayou and El Anatsui, a whole new generation of outstanding talents are emerging whose prices still remain reasonable.

As for classic African Art, collectors are becoming more and more sophisticated, looking for high quality objects. Today’s collectors show a more eclectic taste than before, exploring different areas and are curious about everything.

Didier Claes
Didier Claes, Brussels

Are you collecting any African Contemporary Art? Is there an artist or a group of artists that you are particularly interested in?

Yes, I collect Contemporary African Art and contemporary art in general. I particularly like South African Robin Rhodes and Congolese painter JP Mika.

French president Emmanuel Macron is supporting the return of national artifacts taken during the colonial era to Africa. What are your thoughts on this initiative and do you support it?

I feel that by helping African countries regain some of their national pride, France is making a diplomatic and memorable gesture. The generation of President Emmanuel Macron, who takes a modern look at the past, has the power to strengthen ties with Africa.

There seems to be a distinct lack of Tribal Art marketed on the major online art platforms. Do you feel there needs to be an increase in the online exposure?

Indeed, African Art is not very present on online art platforms. This art is still partly owned by an older generation who do not usually use these sales networks but the situation is gradually changing. These ancient objects are pieces that need to be observed and touched. For many people, seeing the pieces through a screen is still unconventional. African Art needs a “human touch” before being acquired.

How would you describe your online and social media strategy?

I have come to realise that using social media has become essential for a business. These platforms are a useful means of communication for an art gallery. Despite the fact that my customers are still unused to these new technologies, I am thinking of the future. Those who follow me today on social networks may be the customers of tomorrow.

We have recently published an article on Virtual Reality which is becoming increasingly popular both in the art world and out. How do you think this technology will (or will not) impact the art world?

This technology has already had an impact on the art world. It has affected the way we work, both positively and negatively. I think you have to know how to use it with common sense to make it beneficial.

What have you got planned for 2018?

We have had a very successful start to 2018 participating in a number of fairs, we are already on our 4th, and we have held some events at the gallery. At the moment we are preparing our Hong Kong exhibition in collaboration with Christie’s auction house and the Cultures/ Bruneaf course in early June. I always want to go further and continue to find and exhibit new pieces of high quality art.


Africa Top Collectors