Announcing Duende Art Projects – a new kind of art gallery by Bruno Claessens

I’m proud to announce my new venture: Duende Art Projects. My brand new gallery’s ambition is to inspire people and enrich their lives by sharing a profound passion for the art of the African continent. My purpose is to strengthen Africa’s visibility and significance within the global and diverse art world through a strong digital presence and frequent curated exhibitions on unique locations.

Duende is a Spanish word that is difficult to translate; it is a concept related to flamenco, referring to a magical moment of inspiration and genius. It is the heightened state of emotion when encountering a moving work of art, a sudden experience that can’t be captured, a moment of goosebumps. While Spanish in origin, the word has an African ring to it too – indeed it is a universal concept, and indicative for the gallery’s ambitions. Duende Art Projects goes beyond labels and reveals the art’s multiplicity of layers.

The gallery wants to open up the western-dominated perspective in the art world, and offers a well-rounded and fresh take on African art, both classical and contemporary. Establishing strategic collaborations with other galleries and institutions worldwide, it wishes to create opportunities to support and promote art and artists from the African continent. The gallery strives to advance the careers of the artists it exhibits and strengthen their international exposure.

Our mission is to connect people – the curious and interested, aspiring and seasoned collectors, connoisseurs, emerging and renowned artists, art advisors, curators and writers – with art from the African continent and its diaspora. We facilitate easy access through compellingly curated exhibitions – offline and online, in Antwerp and on location. We offer a bespoke and discrete art advisory service that covers all aspects of building and managing a collection. The online platform provides insightful educational content and wishes to be a home for ideas, news and stories. While this website will remain online, future blogs with be posted on the Duende website, which you can find

Be sure to regularly visit the instagram page for more news.

My first exhibition THREADS is scheduled for October 1st until November 14th 2021, and will be held in the 14th century Zwartzusters monastery in the historic city centre of Antwerp.

For its inaugural exhibition THREADS, Duende Art Projects presents an empowering juxtaposition of both classical and contemporary art from the African continent. Rarely exhibited together, and generally considered to be different collecting categories, Duende Art Projects brings both old and new work from the African continent together in the unique setting of a 14th century monastery in the historic centre of Antwerp.

THREADS will gather  a group of masterpieces, both old and new, with a shared sensibility and a powerful message. One of the anchors of the exhibition will be an important and monumental tapestry by El Anatsui. In his “Man’s Cloth II” from 2006, El Anatsui effectively created a contemporary work of art inspired by traditional royal Kente cloths from Ghana, connecting the individual and collective threads of the African continent while referencing its history, consumption and globalisation.

A work of art often begins with a stray thread; the artist pulls, and waits to see what will happen when he explores a certain idea. An artist dares to go beyond the known, challenges the idea over and over again, until one string succeeds in becoming a patchwork of threads bound together into a masterpiece. Artworks are collisions of ideas. Multiple threads may be floating in the artist’s consciousness, and, in just a single moment, these ideas collide and form a work of art. Artists weave together seemingly disparate but related threads into rich works of art with a multitude of layers loaded with meaning and symbolism. Some of these threads might be easily identifiable and explicit, while others are not so obvious, they might be invisible to the naked eye, yet they unconsciously nest themselves under one’s skin. These invisible threads could be the strongest ties, but the hardest to grasp.

Unraveling the threads of a work of art can be a challenging undertaking, especially when the creator remains anonymous, as is the case with most classical African art. Ritually, objects served a specific purpose and functioned within a well-defined context. As conveyed by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’, looking at the single elements is critical to get an understanding of a system as a whole. As such, classical African art could be a key to unlocking a better understanding of the contemporary art landscape.

Besides El Anatsui, THREADS will include works by Abdoulaye Konaté, Kimathi Mafafo, Tuli Mekondjo, Sizwe Sibisi and Saidou Dicko, as well as a museum-quality group of Fante asofo flags, a stunning ensemble of egungun dance costumes and an exceptional 16th century Kongo trumpet.

Publications Research

New publication on the artworks of the Verre people of Nigeria

The art of the Verre peoples of Northeast Nigeria finally has gotten the scholarly attention it deserves. Three passionate researchers, Richard Fardon, Tim Chappel and Klaus Piepel, have just published a comprehensive study on their material culture. The study “Surviving Works: context in Verre arts“, is based on early collections of Verre artifacts by the German explorer Leo Frobenius (1912), collections of such objects by Tim Chappel for the Nigerian museum in Jos (1966 – illustrated above), collections of Danish missionaries and objects in private collections. The focus of the study lies on the numerous brass items the Verre have produced for ritual purposes and adornment for themselves and for neighbours, and includes a catalogue raisonnée. The study is freely available online and can be downloaded here – kudos to the authors for making it available free of charge!

Concerning their collaboration the three authors wrote:

Our collaboration was initiated by Klaus Piepel (Nigeria-Desk Officer at Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops’ Organization for Development Cooperation, from 2005-13) who, as a collector of Verre art, had contacted Tim Chappel to ask about the Verre artworks he had bought locally in the mid-1960s on behalf of the Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities, then his employer. This enquiry encouraged Chappel to return to and begin to write up the partial copies of collection notes and images he had retained since that time, and to explore the literature on the area. Piepel had simultaneously reached out to Richard Fardon (now Emeritus Professor at SOAS University of London) who had carried out fieldwork among the Chamba, southern neighbours south of the Verre, intermittently since the mid-1970s. The sites of Fardon’s longest main fieldwork in the Alantika Mountains had been nodes in the regional circuits through which Verre products had once moved, and he had met Verre smiths there producing for a Chamba clientele, so was eager to collaborate towards understanding this wider regional set of connections.As authors we have shared the research while trying to bring to the collaboration whatever complementary skills we have. Hence, Piepel undertook the bulk of primary research in German archives and in the contemporary art market, Chappel analysed aspects of the various types of objects he collected, and Fardon has considered their ethnographic and historical contexts. But we have not worked on any of these aspects exclusively, and we have exchanged ideas and reading notes extensively. Fardon synthesised the research materials and wrote the text for Chappel and Piepel to comment upon.


Field-photo of the day: likishi Iya radio (Zambia, 2016)

Photo by Martin Vorwaerts, 2016.

This is a likishi (singular), an ancestral spirit from the vaka chinyama communities (Luvale, Mbunda, Luchazi & Chokwe people) from Zambia.. Makishi (plural) appear and perform usually around the mukanda boy initiation. There are more than one hundred different characters, each with its own role, history, and symbols. The one above, photographed in 2016, depicts a radio/cassette player, honouring the important role, mobile radios have played since their introduction to the Zambian people. The photographer, Martin Vorwaerts, documented the whole creation process and performance of this masquerade in 2016 during his field-research for his Ph.D. on these makishi masquerades.


The Michel Périnet collection to be sold at Christie’s Paris on 23 June 2021

On Wednesday 23 June, Christie’s will be offering the Michel Périnet collection of African, Oceanic and Native American art for sale in Paris. Prior to his death in 2020, the legendary Parisian gallerist and collector had entrusted the sale of his collection to four esteemed colleagues: Alain de Monbrison, Lance Entwistle, Bernard Dulon and François de Ricqlès. They were asked to oversee the sale of the 61 works and have chosen Christie’s to conduct this extra-ordinary auction packed with iconic works.

Michel Périnet was born on 14 July 1930 and quit school at the age of 14, wanting to become a jeweller. His decorator father sent him to train with various artisans. In 1956, he rented a shop on the Rue Danielle-Casanova in Paris to exhibit and sell his designs. But antique jewellery appealed to him too, so he purchased pieces here and there to sell them on to the trade, and quickly became a full-time antique dealer. With his jewellery workbench experience, he keenly recognised quality crafting.In 1964, Périnet discovered Art Nouveau and the genius of Lalique, and he single-handedly helped resuscitate the then out-of-fashion turn-of-the-century style. Périnet handled the most exquisite designs by René Lalique, Georges Fouquet and Henri Vever. In 1980, he opened a shop on the Rue Saint-Honoré, across from the premises of the antique dealer Jacques Kugel. In 2005, having made his fortune, Michel Périnet closed its doors after 25 years. But that didn’t mean he had retired, and his daily trips to the Drouot auction house continued. Périnet was not just a dealer, he was a collector too. In the sale’s catalog his wife writes about the start of his fascination for African art.

In 1967, on a trip to London to purchase jewellery, Michel happened across a Kota sculpture from Gabon. His heart leapt. “I didn’t choose the object: it chose me,” he admitted. As always, he paid for his find before the session was closed, and tucked it into his bag. That was the day that African art entered his life. He read every book he could find about the indigenous cultures of Africa, Oceania, the Native Americans, Inuit art, and more. He browsed, compared, consulted with specialists, eliminated, bought, sold – the better to buy more – and tirelessly sought out that exceptional piece. “Whether he had been advised of a Dogon maternity figure or a sculpture from the Marquesas Islands, he tracked it like a hunting dog, eyes eager and bright,” his partner remembers. “I knew that he would never come home empty- handed. If Michel had set his sights on something, he didn’t haggle over price.” His motto was a subtle one: “Always purchase an object at the price it will cost in two years.” With that approach, he surrounded himself with masterpieces, monumental figures, every one. From antique cameos to African statues, this collector abhorred trinkets.

In addition to his love of art deco and art nouveau (collecting everything from furniture to screens to sculptures), he also spotted the then-undervalued works of the Pont-Aven school which he collected extensively. In all these fields, Périnet showed an unique vision and determination. Always ready to sacrifice for a new acquisition, he never hesitated to acquire the works on which he had set his sights, often criticized for ‘overpaying’ by trade colleagues. This focus helped him build unrivalled collections, the result of the absolute passion and hard work of an extraordinary man with a legendary eye and rigour. He will always be remembered as a master collector alongside Jacques Doucet (whose Kota helmet mask is featured in the sale), his role model, and Nouran Manoukian, his great friend. The selection of works that will be offered for sale on June 23nd are a testament to his taste, and the auction surely will be one to remember.

You can browse the sale here. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can provide you with pre-sale bidding advice or any other market intelligence.


13 carats Kota-inspired earrings by Graff

In case you would be looking for a beautiful gift for someone special (or yourself), and money is not a problem, please look no further. The upper-end jewellery brand Graff just launched a new set of designs called “The Tribal Collection” – more info here. It’s only too bad their marketing department didn’t do their research, as the rest of the world has been trying to refrain from the use of the denominator ‘tribal’ for a while.

Part of the collection are the above all-diamond earrings – clearly inspired by the reliquary guardian figures of the Kota from Gabon – although the below description on the website fails to mention that inspiration..

A highly evocative design that interprets elemental shapes found in nature, our Night Moon diamond high jewellery earrings frame the face with graphic brilliance. Forming the sculptural Night Moon motif, a perfect half-moon symbolic of clarity and reflection, perfectly proportioned oval diamonds are encircled by double diamond halos. Suspended beneath, invisibly set baguette cut stones trace a striking diamond shape, accompanied by rows of round diamonds that shimmer spectacularly with each movement of the wearer. The Tribal collection captures Graff’s mastery of design and storytelling through diamonds. Three striking motifs unite the collection, which includes petite pendants, earrings and rings alongside hypnotic jewels featuring sleek and sculptural rows of diamonds.

Besides the earrings, the necklace also features a central Kota-inspired diamond motif (see below). Laurence Graff in fact is one of the world’s top 200 art collectors, and previously already created jewellery inspired by the works of Cy Twombly. It’s nice to see his African art also gets to inspire his designs – although it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to not mention the genius anonymous artists that came up with the archetype of the much-celebrated Kota reliquary figures. The diamonds surely are as glittering as the original brass-covered statues once were..

Sara Sampaio wearing the Night Moon pieces shot on location in the Atlantis Dune in South Africa. Image by Mikael Jansson, courtesy of Graff.

Help needed deciphering an old inscription

Dear friends, I hope someone of you could help me out deciphering this old inscription on a metal band – above a poor ‘panorama’ view of the whole – more pictures can be found below. I read:

Nimrod en Jägare War J Skoug ock marck han migh ?ar 1699
Nu är Jagh Hökens i ähl Drick uth det är en godh skähl 5/1

That ‘skähl’ very much sounds like the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish word for “cheers”, so I assume it is written in an old Scandinavian language, which would be affirmed by the date 1699. Nimrod on the other hand is Hebrew-Aramaic for ‘big hunter’, while ‘jägare’ is Swedish for hunter.

I would be most grateful if someone could make sense out of this inscription, or could point me towards a person who could be of help..

Below detail views of the whole. I’m not so sure about that capital J – could be something else as well. Thanks in advance.

My best, Bruno

ps bonus points can be gained by pointing out the origin of this scene.. the ‘hökens’ in the description might be referring to the old Swedish word ‘höker’ derived from the old Norse ‘haukr’ word for hawk!


Gallica, a digital library to bookmark

A site to bookmark for the home-working researchers without access to a decent library: the French digital library Gallica. Search for example on ‘Charles Ratton’ and you’ll get a good number of old auction catalogs he was the expert for (here the one illustrated above). The library of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac also has made 500 documents freely available online – you can browse them here. Let me know if you come across anything else of interest, I’m sure there’s much more to be found among the +6 million documents made available online.


“Distinguished: Women Artists of the Inventory” at the MARKK, Hamburg

Image courtesy of the MARKK.

Thanks to Elena Martinez-Jacquet, I just discovered the Hamburg’s former Museum of Ethnology (now known as the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt or MARKK) since 2019 has a permanent exhibition on view called “Distinguished: Women Artists of the Inventory”.

The exhibition takes a look behind the scenes of the museum during the first half of the 20th century and at the work of its female employees, who at that time were working in the background in this then male-dominated institution. For the first time, the draftswomen, who back then were employed to create a documentation of the collections are brought to the limelight. The exhibition pays tribute to the work of the women, assigns authorship to their works and distinguishes them as artists.

You can learn more about the exhibition here.

Image courtesy of the MARKK.
Photography Publications

Herzekiah Andrew Shanu, a Yoruba photographer in Congo at the turn of the twentieth century

Portrait of Herzekiah-Andrew Shanu, probably dating from his trip to Europe in 1894. Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (HP.1965.14.246).

A book which I have been enjoying very much recently is Broad sunlight: Early West African photography by Michael Graham-Stewart and Francis McWhannell. You can download an extract of it here. This labor of love is the result of a decade of collecting pre-1920 photographs taken in West Africa. The book is full of previously unpublished images and contains a most useful register with all photographers Graham-Stewart and McWhannell were able to track down. The captions to the photos and biographies of the photographers are a true treasure trove of information. Among others they put me on track of Herzekiah Andrew Shanu – of which you can see a portrait above.

Shanu (1858-1905) was among the pioneers photographing in West Africa, and his exceptional life story is worth remembering. Shanu was born in Lagos in 1858 and for a few years was a teacher at the Lagos Primary School. In 1884, he travelled to the Congo Free State’s capital Boma entering the service of the regime of Leopold II of Belgium as a clerk and translator. He helped recruit soldiers from English-speaking areas for the Force Publique, eventually rising to the position of assistant commissioner of the district of Boma. His photographs – depictions of Africans in and around Boma – were published in the Belgian colonial magazine Congo illustré from 1892 on.

In 1893, Shanu left the administration to devote himself to his business which quickly prospered thanks to various activities such as the hotel industry, photography, the sale of food products, ready-to-wear clothing and even laundry services. Shanu travelled through Europe and visited Belgium, France, Germany and England, a rare feat for an African at that time. In 1894 he apparently visited the Universal Exhibition in Antwerp. He was invited by the Belgian Association for Colonial Studies and gave several lectures, mainly in Brussels to the Royal African Circle and in Tirlemont.

In 1900, the colonial administration employed him to help to quell unrest among West African personnel in the Force Publique. In 1903, Shanu supplied the British Consul Roger Casement with information concerning the abuse of West African workers in the Congo, who in turn referred him to Edmund Morel and the Congo Reform Association, working to end slavery and other humanitarian abuses in the Congo Free State. Morel and Shanu corresponded for several years; Shanu forwarding, among other things, transcripts of trials against low-ranking Congo Free State officials which proved to be most revealing. While trying to acquire information from the police chief of Boma, Shanu was found out and as a consequence beleaguered by state officials. After it was discovered that Shanu had provided the Congo Reform Association with evidence of atrocities in the Congo, government employees were officially ordered to boycott his businesses. His business ruined, and himself reduced to despair, Shanu committed suicide in July 1905.

Some sixty of his negatives and prints are held by the Royal Museum for Central Africa; you can explore them here. “Broad sunlight” is full of exceptional personalities you have never heard from before. The cover image below, for example, is a self-portrait by W.J. Sawyer, who would also take some haunting photographs of Ovenramwen, the exiled Oba of Benin. Another self-made photographer worth getting to know.


A Kota fighting voter apathy

Slightly deviating from the ongoing series about African art featured in advertisements, check out this cool vintage poster from the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation urging the public to do ‘the right thing’ and register to vote. The poster probably dates from around 1980 and was part of ‘Operation Big Vote’ – on which you can read more here. This nationwide effort by 70 black organisations hoped to stem the tide of black voter apathy. How a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon could inspire people to go vote is unclear to me, but it surely made a very graphic poster! Thanks to Ciprian Ilie for the tip.

ps yes, you assume right if you were wondering if I tried to find the Kota that inspired this poster – but I unfortunately was unsuccessful. It is a pretty common type of course.