Bryan Reeves has stood for a certain vision of tribal art and culture ever since he launched the Tribal Perspectives fair in 2007. Since then, the event has grown, changed its name and venue by moving into The Mall Galleries to become Tribal Art London. At the start of September, Art Media Agency went to London, winding through the fair’s alleys, to meet Bryan Reeves.
Can you introduce Tribal Art London to us? What is your fair’s angle?
I like introducing Tribal Art London as a cultural fair. Our exhibitors cover all fields of tribal art around the globe, and we have a well-developed conference programme, offering debates in fields as wide as culture or ethnography — the aim being to increase understanding of tribal art without contenting ourselves with merely being a strictly commercial fair. Today, the fair is heading to its ninth birthday. When we started, we were no more than a small exhibition with three dealers — “Tribal Perspectives”. We gradually developed the fair, then moved to a fantastic spot, The Mall Galleries. This has meant that we can host over twenty exhibitors from all over the planet.
A majority of the exhibitors come from Great Britain. Do you aspire to an international status and to welcome more exhibitors?
It isn’t possible for us to welcome more exhibitors without leaving The Mall Galleries. I think that our current size is reasonable. Twenty dealers can assemble enough pieces to make up a fine exhibition. London is not Paris or Brussels in terms of economic vivacity in the tribal-art field. I’m happy to be able to give opportunities to British galleries specialised in tribal art; there aren’t so many of them. A majority of the objects on display also come from Britain. This is another way of working, and I’m glad that things are the way they are.
How does the London market differ from Paris or Brussels?
First of all, a majority of dealers are based outside of London, in the countryside. Dealers acquire their objects differently; they are often objects that have been lying around in English country houses for ages and that therefore make a reappearance on the market. The English market is still strongly tied to its colonial past, and pieces on display often date back to this period. Aboriginal art and Oceanian art are therefore very present — which is perhaps less the case on mainland Europe. In addition, the prices published are perhaps more reasonable, which seems positive to me.
What do you think London needs in order to (re)become a great tribal-art capital, a great tribal-art market?
If we adopt a forward-looking perspective — always the most interesting one to have in my opinion —, I believe that London will have a wonderful opportunity, in the next ten years, to become a strong tribal-art market. Of course, London has a major asset: leading artistic capital. Next, what has been a problem in the past is that the London public has not been adequately exposed to tribal art. Before buying, the public needs to know, sense and feel.
Would you say that a major institution like the Quai Branly in Paris is missing in London?
In France, the Quai Branly has had a major impact on the market; this is true. In London, the market is younger, made up of cultivated, well-off individuals, but it’s true that these potential collectors lack stronger exposure to tribal art. Our role, as dealers, to show these future clients that they can live surrounded by tribal-art pieces. There is no natural resistance amongst the British to tribal art; it is merely a matter of lack of exposure. This is also what we wish to remedy with Tribal Art London, which gains in renown and visitor numbers every year.
One issue in tribal art concerns the authenticity of objects. Do you have a vetting process?
Yes, and I believe this to be essential. It reinforces the fair’s prestige and reassures the public.
During the fair, you are namely going to exhibit a Bambara hyena mask …
This piece is interesting because it is a reflection of what the tribal-art market has been like in Great Britain. From the 1960s to 1980, London was a genuine tribal-art capital with many galleries, collectors and auctions. This piece belonged to Josef Herman before being purchased some twenty years ago by a collector who kept it in London. It hasn’t been long since it made its reappearance on the market. Quality pieces that were exchanged at that time are beginning to make their way back onto the market. This piece hypnotised me; it’s very expressive thanks to to the wood composing it and the hyena’s face.
What issues face a tribal-art dealer today?
Things play out over the long term because the main aim is to build up one’s client base and one’s reputation. The dealer must be trustworthy. So of course, it’s really important to distinguish genuine pieces from copies. This is really the crux of the matter. Afterwards, I think that a major issue today is finding a new clientele. The tribal-art market is noble, but still operates like a closed circuit. We’ve been coming across the same people for twenty years. It’s necessary to approach a new clientele because people certainly won’t come to us. For example, there is a really interesting market amongst tattooees. These people have financial means and are familiar with tribal-art forms. We need to step off the beaten track!
Does the black market have an impact on your profession?
To be honest, I see few pieces from parallel markets. Twenty years ago, the situation was different and many pieces brought in illegally from Africa or Oceania were found on the market.
London events risk being strongly affected by the Brexit. What impact will this development have on you as a dealer and fair organiser?
The Brexit will firstly open up a huge problem in the free circulation of goods. Everything remains to be negotiated between the States, but the situation may well become dicey. Dealers from the Netherlands, from Switzerland, etc. come to us. Administratively, such a decision may open up a real nightmare. I don’t think that this is a very progressive choice… Today, I see the difficulties that I come across for sending goods to the United States. If the situation were to spread to all European countries, it would be a catastrophe. But then, now that things are starting to settle, we need to hope that positive phenomena will emerge from this decision, in the very long term. Let’s wait and see.
What plans do you have for Tribal Art London?
Opening up the fair to institutional exhibitors, museums. I’d like to open up the fair to a more European clientele. The strength of Tribal Art London in recent years has been to represent and support a local market, strong enough to allow the fair to grow. Now, I’d like to draw clients from Germany, France, Belgium… or even the United States!