Kevin Conru interview
Tribal Art Society
Conversation with Alex Arthur and Joaquin Pecci
Joaquin Pecci: Kevin, tell me about your background.

Kevin Conru: I was born and grew up in northern Indiana, not far from Chicago. My education had nothing to do with art but was about music. I went to Northwestern University near Chicago where I studied double bass and played in several orchestras. Music was my profession for about fifteen years after university. After my last year at school, I moved to Amsterdam where I found a situation in an orchestra and then I moved to orchestras in South Africa and Hong Kong.J.P.: So you lived in South Africa...

K.C.: Yes, it was my job before Hong Kong. I was a bass player in an orchestra in Durban, the biggest city in Natal/KwaZulu. It suited me very well to be in a vibrating African community. It was my first contact with Africa and I found it all very exciting. The first two years I was playing music, leading a ’western’ social life, but I traveled often to Zululand in so-called real Africa and saw many amazing villages and people… It’s when I left Africa and Hong Kong for London and graduate studies, that my curiosity was seriously aroused about African culture. My whole focus was shifting from music to art after my training in London. It was just at the end of Apartheid, in the mid to late 80’s, a time when you could still go in the field and find something. I was collecting objects, neck rests and beer pots - utilitarian sort of things -and seeing how people lived, how art was created and used. I was finishing my Master's degree in Arts Policy Administration for Museums in London then and I had just started to work as an adviser for Bonham's. They asked me to start a Tribal Art department.

J.P.: Not having that much experience, wasn't it a big challenge for you?

K.C. : Well, I had my Master's degree but I didn’t realize it was a big challenge until my second auction because the first one flopped…”We give you one more chance, buddy” ... but the second one was on a level.
One of the things that saved me was my knowledge of music and instruments. So while setting up the African and Oceanic department we also set up a musical instrument department. So even if my first auction didn’t work I could work on music instruments or for the Antiquities department, ...I learned very quickly.

J.P.: Alex, you met Kevin when he was starting to work for Bonham's? Did you buy something at his auctions?Alex Arthur: I was very young and inexperienced but I got some good things from this auction: a Senufo headdress.J.P.: Both of you came more and more to Brussels and this conditioned your taste and your sensitivity, right? You became more and more interested in the Congo.A.A.: Yes, this is the place to be if you want to find some good Congo pieces.

K. C.: Don’t forget that in England you do not see much Congo stuff. The various British museums have a lot of Congo material, but there wasn’t much floating around in private hands. I went once to the British Museum to see the Pende masks collected by Torday. I had some fascination for them twenty years ago. They smelled heavily of smoke, almost overwhelming the fresh smell of Africa, and they were collected in 1907! You can learn a lot with your eyes or with your nose but, you can not make a judgment.
A friend of mine had a white faced Congo mask many years ago. When he bought the piece it was white, 30 years later it changed patina because he was a cigar smoker... Objects have a life outside the museums. They were first created, then they came on a ship, then came over ...Often those pieces lived more outside the original context than inside. So it’s very hard to determine what the original surface is supposed to be.A. A: A lot of objects we like are waxed...

 K.C.: The patina in many ways is “our patina “ we have an obsession with patina... Playing the double bass was, for me, my real introduction to the knowledge of wood. Because my basses were always very old, a minimum of 100 years old and being of quality French, Italian, English make, I saw everyday what old wood was supposed to be like. My current bass is a 200 year old English bass, and it’s archaic! Being behind it and playing it all day you feel what old wood is. It has been used every day, not even like a statue, which is used once a week or once a month, but used hours each day. So, musical instruments gave me an extremely valuable, visual, and emotional entre to old wood.

J.P.: Which personality or collection impresses you the most?

A.A: The Mestach collection.J.P.: And for you Kevin? 

K. C.: John Friede’s collection...there was André Fourquet as well..

J.P.:Fourquet was like Willy for us?

K.C.: Yes, but more universal. Willy was very “Belgian” André Fourquet was international, even if his way of thinking was very French, he went to New York, London, even the Marquesas islands... so his taste was formed differently. Willy is an artist first and foremost. An artist's eye is different from a writer’s eye or a banker’s eye... Willy had a few Polynesian things but it was mainly a Congo collection whereas Fourquet’s was geographically more eclectic.For me, John Friede, like William Oldman, built one of the greatest collections by focusing all his energy- and resources on his project, collecting piece by piece. And they were invariably all masterpieces.

A.A.:Well it’s true that the John Friede collection was great for its continuity. And then I do think that Willy is different from any other collector.

J.P There is a real “fil conducteur” he really creates something, his collection is a work of art.

J.P.: Would you be able to work without objects ?

 K.C.: Some parts of my life are full of objects, some others are devoid. I started without objects very comfortably and, believe me, it was a very nice part of my life, in one or two cases it was much easier .So I would be glad to go back to that total freedom...

J.P.: So if you return to this time with only one case, which piece would you take with you ?

K.C.: This past year I went to two marvelous places where monumental sculpture completely reduces you to tears: Easter Island and Egypt. And for me I can argue that this is my true experience of art.

A.A.: I went to Easter Island in 1988, in the first issue in Tribal art Magazine there was an article about Easter Island... It was a feeling of being alone, in the “ immensity”, in spirituality. I felt the strongest of emotions there.

K.C.: When you stand in that “immensity”, you realize that you are nothing...

A.A.: I think there are marvelous civilizations but do not forget that there are individual artists. What I learned when I was buying at Bonham's - I had a small budget- is that first of all you have to like the object whatever the price. Because I could not afford a certain piece I took one of the same quality but cheaper. You know, the difference between a Kandinsky paint stroke and an unknown artist's is the intensity of that stroke, and you can see it.

K.C.: Yes, it's very true ... and you can see that from the moment you enter a room: it’s there.. As art professionals, our life is made of understanding
emotionally what the artist communicates. Then how do we translate our interaction with this artist? What is behind this Fiji figure or the Berend Hoekstra painting? What does the artist want to express? And then how do we communicate that to somebody else ? That is what Tribal Art Magazine is about...

A.A.: Yes, yet actually, today, we interpret some objects as art pieces although they weren’t meant to be so. We have many ways of “seeing” an object...

J.P. How do you perceive the evolution of the market? In the early 20th century all modern artists were buying tribal art pieces, but will everybody be concerned by tribal art in the next years?

K.C.: When I listen to your question I have many answers...There is a big change...Our generation is a little more rock n' roll. We have new people interested, we have fashions, the Chinese are now interested and museums in Middle East countries.... It's boiling. It's harder than before to find good objects but no matter how tough it is, it’s good.

A.A.: Well I think this is a key period. Today, if we find a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, which is not in the catalogue raisonné, it is immediately suspect. As for Primitive Art we are only producing those catalogues raisonnés now: we are situating the pieces where they belong and if somebody finds a Luba in a fleamarket it can still be a masterpiece. This is were we are standing, we are still discovering

J.P.: What do you think about this “Internet” a way of working ?

A.A.: Well I think there is no going back...

K.C.: We are used to working in actual physical spaces, but many of our commercial transactions take place in cyberspace: People in Australia, America... Still, eye contact is important to sell an object. 
We are now so much more connected to people and to different places. We are all doing this with a website, you tube, Facebook, twitter...We didn’t grow up with multimedia -my children have but not me†. Could we, one day, have a Skype gallery? My Old Maori film hits 400 viewers in one week, but in the meantime there's 20 million hits for car videos, so we have a long way to go...

J.P.: How do you see the future of a gallery with all these new ways of working?

K.C.: It's terribly important to have a physical space, a room, a house, a stand on the street whatever...My experience with a lot of collectors is that they like to see how we live with art without it being institutionalised. People need to interact with the pieces even if it's just for one second: They have to get this physical moment...

J.P.: Alex, what do you think of our project TAS?

A.A.: I think Internet is certainly one of the keys for the next years and if the people of TAS can put their individuality forward as well as good object it has a good chance of success.