Interview with Jean Willy Mestach
(From The World of Tribal Arts magazine)

The following interview with Jean Willy Mestach took place over the course of several meetings held in his art studio, at his favourite restaurant on Sablon, and during casual strolls through the art filled streets of Brussels. The enormity of Willy's insights, his prodigious intelligence and easy charm are difficult to capture through words along.  He has assembled one of the world's most coherent African art collections and has created a prominent body of his own work using his profound intellect, searing curiosity and discerning eye.   While doing research for this article I found many people who called Willy Mestach a friend, a patron, a father figure and an inspiration.  The following is rare opportunity to see the inner workings of this great artist and collector


Ryann Willis:  How does African art continue to inspire you after 40 years of collecting?

Willy Mestach:  More than forty years of ago, while I was Andre Lhote's disciple – and also at the time I made my first acquisition – I found that African sculpture illustrated points of convergence with my own studies of form, and further liberated me from academic constraints.  With its bold forms, with its instinctive rhythms, and with its expressiveness, African art indicates dialogue, and speaks to me of an art rooted as much in logic as in the unconscious, in which Imagination explores the origins of myths.  It is the same imagination that gives rise to “forms more real than nature”.

Moreover, I was able to observe the perfect harmony that establishes itself between the works of man and his natural environment, which also inspired myths and generated symbols.  The structures of this sculpture - that is to say disposition of volumes, the proportional relations, and the internal rhythms - generally correspond to the rhythms of growth and to the fundamental laws imposed by nature at the origin of life.  After 40 years I continue to engage in this privileged dialogue with primal arts, always in search of the universal in fundamental forms - that universal, which through the voice of the archetypes achieves timelessness.

RW: Why did you originally choose to collect African art?

WM:  Because I had good sense! (Laughing)  Look at Eskimo art.  It embodies many of the same universal concepts and ideas that interest me in African art but I did not think I would have a good chance to acquire Eskimo art in Belgium.

RW: What is the history of your own artistic journey?

WM: At the start my roots were in the flat country of Flanders, nurtured by Earth, Sky, and Water, bordering on mysticism.  This was my “Expressionist” period. Then, I was naturally influenced by French culture with its literature and its philosophical analysis, in which geometry and thought come together.  This was my “Constructivist” period.  Close as I was to the phenomenon of the human being and all his extensions, I was more and more aware of belonging to that humanity which stirred Socrates to say “I am neither Geek nor Roman, but a citizen of the world.”  This was my period of the portraits. 

Keenly interested in the study of the origins of art, I had a revelation about the universality of archetypes in the polygenesis of primordial forms.  I have been fascinated with archaeology since childhood.  Discipline got me through the academy and I learned art history through curiosity.  As an adult I returned to the way of the primal arts.  That was a return to the source.  I finally found the unswerving path along original, basic lines through “Journeys of Collective Memory.” While continuing the study of the forms connected with the “sign” and “symbol,” I began my pursuit of witness-objects. This was the time of the “group” that is also called a “collection.”

Still looking for universal expression, I started handling three dimensions in 1984.  This was the time of “sculptures and assemblages”.  In materializing the symbol and moving from metaphor to allegory, I was standing at the gates of the surreal.  I still had to explore the primordial through a return to nature and its forms, materials and myths.  At last I found Mother-Earth, the original womb from which we emerge and to which we inevitably return.  The time had come, the time of the “metamorphose .”


“Nature is a temple in which

living pillars

At times emit confused expressions

Man goes by through its

Forest of symbols

That observe him with

A familiar gaze'



RW: What frustrates you the most about creating your art?

WM: I go too slowly.  Like raising a child, it takes time (Smiles) Conceptualizing is actually what takes the longest.  Once I have the concept, it's finished.  Then I have to explain it to everyone else!

RW: Have you ever done a work that no one else understood?

WM:  Oh yes, but then I look at a 16 th or 17 th Century creation and I find something that I have done and it is exactly the same.  You see, you create something that you think is original and it's not.  Universal concepts are constant.  It comes from the perpetual memory that Jung spoke of.  Christian symbols, Indian symbols. Left, Right, Moon, Dark, Female, they are always the same symbolically for every time and every culture.  The Moon is always on the left the Sun is always on the right, for example.

RW: What counsel would you give a person who is beginning a collection?

WM:  Learn to look and discern, keeping in mind that looking is not seeing.  Study the evolution of ethnic styles through iconography and analyze the evolution of forms and substances.  Choose the object, which speaks to your heart as much as your spirit, in accordance with your inner most personality.

Have perseverance; remember that learning costs, and that choice and knowledge evolve together.  Assemble rather than collect.  This means thinking of the collection as a whole, as a work of art in itself…but this approach is a personal choice. This is the advice I can give according to my experience, and will end with this little maxim:  “Tell me what you collect, tell me how you collect, and I will tell you who you are.”

RW:  Was there ever an object that, in hindsight, you regret not acquiring?

WM:  At the beginning of the 1950's, I could have acquired the Metropolitan Museum's well-known Kwele mask, for the sum of 60,000 Belgian francs ($2,000), which was at the time an exorbitant price and well beyond my means.  The mask was in the collection of Dumoulin for many years, and then it went to Carlebach in New York .  I remember it still.  It stood out from a very white wall, surrounded by green, pale-vined vegetation, whose leaves continually suggested its general form.

Marcel Dumoulin, by the way, the first expect in primal arts in Brussels , had a high-level collection.  He was a friend of Henri Lavachery, and worked at the time with the Musee d'Art et Histoire du Cinquantenaire.  He was my first patron.  I want to thank him here.

RW: Who will make up the next generation of collectors?  Will they be primarily artists?

WM:  There will be new collections, more directed, more specialized or more selective, but more closely governed by personal taste and budgetary considerations.  Of course, there will always be accumulators, some innovators and more followers, but market fluctuations will discourage speculation.  There will also be artists who will look to tribal arts, either for escape or liberation, conformation of or confirmation with their own work.

RW: What does the future hold for African art?

WM: I think the highest levels of quality will be acquired by by big money and big museums.  New foundations and museums will open their doors and show new donations.  Everything will depend on the orientation of future cultural, economic, and budgetary policies. Still other collections - from the most specialized to the most diversified - will be seen, and beautiful objects will become more accessible to the public at large.  In any case, man will remain more or less a collector in his soul, be he dreamer, aesthete, accumulator, or even speculator.  But that's another story….


Willy in his Brussels studio.

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