Lire en Français Art Primitif à Anvers.
Lees in Nederlands Primitieve Kunst in Antwerpen.
We visited David Norden, an esteemed antique dealer with a passion for African art.
We captured his story in three days, focusing on his personal life as an antiques dealer
and how he gained his knowledge.
“My father and grandfather already had an antique shop. That's how my knowledge about this has grown.”
During the documentary, his view of the art world and his passion for what he believes in emerge:
“For me, artefacts are ambassadors of a country's culture and we will remain that way
aware of what those people have done.”
primitive art in Antwerp
Video (c) by StampMedia under creative commons, byMatias Ramos, ter Maat and Kiza Kobé.
Nowadays everything always seems so busy. Everyone is on their way to work or thinking about their future.
Shops are full and everything seems to be in constant motion. But hidden among all this hustle and bustle you occasionally find a shop where time seems to stand still.
“David Norden Primitive Art”
D.N. My name is David Norden. I am sixty years old and in daily life I am a dealer in African art.
Yes, I have been doing that for about thirty years. I have had a trade register since 1988. I was a professional photographer for five years.
I switched to more African art and in the beginning I also did some general antiques.
And my father and my grandfather also all had an antique shop. And yes, when those people came, I was still a child. I then had to help serve the coffee, or arrange the pieces from the stock nicely and I liked to do that.
(photo of David Norden's mother Nadya Levi with Werner Gillon, former curator of the British Museum African art)
Then I went to England with my mother at auctions and then yes, that's how my knowledge about it grew a bit. But when I was a child I did not immediately want to become a trader myself, I studied biology at university. But I didn't complete that, and then studied photography and became professional photographer.
African art is just self-study, I have never done specific studies for that. But it's not that I wanted to do something with that. I just knew it. It wasn't until later when… I was a photographer, but there were a lot of people who just didn't pay me properly as a photographer. It is a service sector, and then I thought for a moment about trying something different.
K.K. – How do you even start with that? What, how do you get those objects into the store?
D.N. Today I mainly buy via online auctions. And sometimes I also have a collector who has a lot of pieces and who says David I have a few pieces here that I no longer fit in my collection and you have something that I would like to have. Can we exchange or part money and exchange? So that's how I get my pieces
K.K. Then the maintenance of such objects. Do you spend a lot of time on that or is there a lot of effort?
D.N. In fact not really, but what is nice: if you have a beautiful piece, sometimes presentation can add something… sometimes you have a pedestal made if they do not hold straight.
Also with masks, if you don't want to hang them on the wall, you can have a stand made for them and then it presents better.
I know there are also dealers who work with repairers to fill gaps and sometimes trim or repatinate pieces
but I don't concern myself with that. I usually leave the pieces as they are, as they come in.
The oldest pieces I have can sometimes be two or three thousand years old.
Yes, I have another statue that has an interesting story. This is a Teke statue that comes from Congo before 1930.
TEKE Statue taken out from the fire by Claude Lehuard and collected in Congo-Brazzaville between 1924 & 1933
At that time the missionaries wanted to burn those figures. These were “fetishes“, they were supposedly evil spirits, and the Africans had to become Catholic and in fact they had to renounce their religion. And then the missionaries put all those statues on a large pyre.
That man (Claude Lehuard) was able to save a few of those statues from the pyre in time.
And if you look at the image, you will see that there are still traces of the fire on it.
I noticed that I was gaining a little weight with age and thought, how am I going to fix that? By having a little more physical activity. But I personally don't really feel the need to go to a gym or anything like that. So I thought I might do a little gardening.
So my wife bought a house in France where I have a large vegetable garden of 500 square meters, and I can actually combine that a bit with my shop. So in the winter I let some seeds germinate with an artificial light. In the summer I just put them outside. And when I go to France, I just put those plants that have grown a in the car to plant in my vegetable garden. So that's also kind of my hobby.
And yes, I have a shop here that is not like all the other shops, because in most African art shops the dealers do it very clean, a bit like in a museum. And then you see five or ten pieces and they cost a lot of money. But then you are only addressing people who really have a lot of money and that is not really my intention here, so I am not concerned with that.
K.K. And one of my last questions is, why did you choose the name “Primitive Art” as the name for your store?
D.N. Yes, that's a name that is a bit controversial. Usually I would say just African art. But since I'm a bit wider and sometimes also collect oceanic art or Eskimo (Inuit) art or non-European art, I first chose Primitive Art, but in fact every name is wrong so to speak. In my sense, it's more the original meaning. But now they have also called that primary arts. Ultimately it is difficult to always please everyone with a name. It actually doesn't say much at all.
K.K. I have done some additional research and it appears that there are a few countries that do ask for their art back from antique institutions and museums that then deal in “Primary Art” or yes “Primitive Art”. What is your opinion on that?
D.N. Yes, that is in fact a thing. At this moment we are in fact questioning history. So there are many countries that indeed say yes, you have robbed us of our art over time, sometimes by force and we would like to have those art objects back in our country because that is our culture. Personally, I don't think that is 100% correct. For me, the artifacts are more ambassadors of a culture of a country, and that also ensure that other people discover a culture of a country and that also ensure that other people, in fact, yes, stay informed about what those people have done. Many pieces arrived in the XIX century. I just see something among colonials who had a plantation in Congo and then it is in the attic of those parents who are dying. I'm called, the house has to be cleared. Are you interested in buying those things from us? OK, I'll buy them. Sometimes there are documents included, but often I don't know under what circumstances those objects ended up here. So you can't say if it was all stolen or not. No, it often needs to be nuanced a bit. It's not all black or white, good or bad. There are many shades of gray in between.
K.K. Thank you for your opinion.
D.N. Yes you're welcome.