Splendors, Curiosities, & Andy Warhol’s Costume Party at BRAFA 2018

At the center of Brussels, the gold-touched Gothic and Baroque architectural jewels that line the Grand Place tell a story of history and splendor, of cultural change and survival, of centuries of war and art.

Two miles away, at the former Royal Warehouse that is now the Tour et Taxis complex, similar stories are being told in the halls and galleries of the 63rd BRAFA art fair.

Those who know art fairs often refer to BRAFA as the “mini-Maastricht,” a reference to the mammoth-sized but similarly-conceived event that takes place in that Dutch Medieval city each March. Others describe it as a “kunstkabinet,” or “cabinet of curiosities.” Both are true; but more significant — and unique to this particular ten-day-long celebration of art and culture — is the way it so intimately and deftly intertwines them. As the fair’s organizers note of this year’s edition, “Once again, the work of art will be queen at BRAFA and will incarnate with majesty more than four millennia of a history without borders, an overview that is rich in sculptures, paintings, tapestries, glasswork, porcelain as well as jewelry, furniture, clocks, chandeliers, and drawings.”

This vision is realized in every corner of the fair. Take, for instance, this year’s presentation at Axel Vervoordt of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s “Intimation,” a delicate interlacing of aluminum shards and copper wire typical of the artist’s chain-mail-like draperies that pour, almost like liquid, across the wall — and then visit the work of Columbian artist Olga de Amaral at Galerie Valerie Bach. De Amaral’s gold- or blue-gessoed linen, which she describes as “golden surfaces of light,” find their roots in different philosophies than El Anatsui’s works, based in different geographies, histories, yet both share the same sense of drape and fluidity, and the same spellbinding splendor.

Olga de Amaral at Valerie Bach

Similarly, the 19th-century Yaka ceremonial masks at Didier Claes bring a surprising new look to a Manolo Valdez “Portrait On A Gray Background” from 2013, on view at the Opera Gallery. “But they have nothing to do with each other!” some might protest: but don’t they? Aren’t they both part of a universal creative urge and search for form and meaning?

Yaka ceremonial mask at Didier Claes, and Manolo Valdez “Portrait On A Gray Background” at Opera

Nowhere is this more clear than at the eclectic stand of Theatrum Mundo, a new “21st century wunderkammer,” as the owners call it, based in Arezzo, Italy, and making its first appearance at BRAFA.

Crespi: “The Mocking of Christ”; Warhol: Christ figure from”The Last Supper”; Original costume of Leonardo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle

Here, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Christ from his version of Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” reflecting the many Christ figures at Haute Epoque dealers (such as London’s Mullany) throughout the fair, stands watch over the original costume for Leonardo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; and, said Andy Warhol to my mother over lunch once in New York, “The world is just a costume party.” 
 But: underneath the costumes, who are we, anyway?

In the halls of the BRAFA fair, there are clues to find, and answers to discover.