JAS – where art meets humanity

JAS, the privately owned museum of Jan and Kristina Engels with an open window to the world

Jan and Kristine Engels live a life surrounded by art and nature in the centre of Antwerp. The interest of Jan Engels for African art originated way back in his youth. Activated by his grandfather, Jan Engels in close collaboration with his wife Kristina, built a tremendous collection in quality and quantity of mainly African art.

One could say in a simple and naive reflex “to save a part of the African and tribal cultures and heritage”. JAS is a homage to African, Asian and South American art, where cultures meet and live side by side.

For the last few decades Jan and Kristina Engels collected more than 500 pieces of African art and tribal artefacts. Most of the collection was hidden for a long time in carton board boxes but suddenly the Engels couple realised it should do something with this valuable collection. Research and presentation where the next steps to activate the process. Near the private home of Jan and Kristina a private presentation space was created which shows today most of the pieces of this remarkable collection.

“Ethnic art represents the history and rituals of African culture and in JAS we create a homage to the African people, their artisan way of dealing and connecting with their spiritual world, but also being artists in creating artefacts as useful and practical tools. What intrigues me the most are the stories behind each object which let us discover the richness of the different cultures through the continent. Some pieces are originally from Asia, Oceania and even Latin America. Thanks to the collection we are on a constant voyage to understand and bridge our own culture and meet perspectives with people from all over the globe. What I find also very enriching is the dialogue we like to create with modern and contemporary art from Europe and the influence and inspiration that comparable pieces of our collection had on artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Floris Jespers and others.” 

As a couple with an interest (and surrounded) by art and culture in its daily life, the museum could have also been a museum of renaissance paintings, medieval objects, antiques or even oldtimers and classic cars. A coincidence brought Jan Engels in contact with African art, which turned into an epidemic, one might say. His grandfather introduced Jan to ethnic art and Jan followed his traces and roots, both in art and business.

“A second cousin of his grandfather was active for a long time in Africa as a Redemptorist father. His active duty in Africa made him bring artefacts to Belgium and as a child I remember his visits. In a backroom of the house we presented this collection in a well-organized way, without the storytelling and context that you would expect. I took over the collection later. Without this influence I would never have entered the path of African art. I strongly believe that experiences of youth become passionate red threads later in life. Years ago I bought a guitar for my two sons and today both Mathieu and Guillaume have become musicians looking for podia all over and travelling around internationally.”

The collection of African art grew organically during the years, and after the inherited pieces, new pieces were bought and joined the collection. A breakthrough moment for Jan and his collection were the moments he was offered outside collections. A writer collector from the Liège region and personal friend of Marguerite Yourcenar, Paul Dresse de Lésbioles, who built his collection in the first half of the 20th century in Paris, was the first step.

“We were contacted by the owner of the Lésbioles collection, who was desperate to keep the collection as a whole fur future generations and couldn’t find an institution or private party to realise this vision. In the same year we received other offers to buy outside collections but today we are very selective in growing the collection and we only look for unique quality pieces that will enrich the collection in a transversal way. The challenge will be to keep up to this discipline.”

“Travelling proved to be the main generator of interest and collecting. In the 70s and 80s Jan was permanently on the move for business reasons and often he was joined by Kristina. Visiting Kenia, Senegal, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa taught both of them a lot about local cultures. The results from these trips was not to bring artworks because already in that period it was impossible to collect and export authentic, certified pieces to Europe in a legal way. To import art from Asia in this period was still possible which made us collect some pieces from India, Vietnam and Nepal for example, adding an Eastern touch to the collection. Today these Asian doors are also closed. We also bought some artworks from the collection Princess Joséphine Charlotte of Luxembourg.

Visiting an almost closing historical abbey can lead to one of the coincidences of growing the collection. Two fathers were working on the inventory of 300 pieces of African art, that travelled to Belgium in the 1940s and 1950s. I showed a strong interest because falsification and copying were not a main issue yet in that period and region. We bought the entire collection after studying it. On the other hand the working life of a medieval monk became part of our lives to clean and freshen up the pieces, lying for decades in a humid basement.”

Jan and Kristina are aware that some of the pieces will be questioned on authenticity and also they question themselves the origins of the artworks and how these objects found their way to a new home at JAS, Antwerp. In parallel raising questions on post colonialism and the role of private museums in the collective cultural landscape shouldn’t be avoided neither. Being a private museum, the study of the collection will become a long term process but an important one in the near future. Kristina is touched by the beauty of the pieces, the tribal stories behind each piece and its original function as a mechanical tool or addressing to a deity. This permanent study teaches her a lot about life across borders but at the end also about our own way of Western living. The result is a pleasure and a way of life for the couple.

The primitive aspect on first sight of these art objects and masques from all over the world make it sometimes difficult to divide the artefacts from Oceania, Africa and Asia, but they all have a complex and tribal background. Deciphering the codes of the artworks and artefacts is part of this wonderful journey. How to interpret the symbols, rituals, aesthetics, spirits, the circle and continuity of life, the relation to forefathers and ancestors, voodoo, prenuptial ceremonies, tattoos, head-hunters, fertility, myths and magic, colours, invisible worlds, fire and energy, etc. ? Dissolving these codes is part of the magic of the collection. Every mask, tool, sculpture has a reason of creation and existence and via storytelling these objects become readable.

The name JAS was created as a wink to the nearby MAS museum — the museum that relates to the history of the city of Antwerp located at the new developed old port, het Eilandje — housing the important and world famous Pre-Columbian art collection of Dora Janssen. In the future new curated presentations will create a dynamics at JAS, looking for dialogues with other collections and insights, creating a platform for knowledge sharing and inspirational rencontres. Even bringing contemporary art in the museum is an attractive option and a new way to present the collection in the future. The future is bright for this exceptional private initiative where Jan and Kristina love to share their passion and keen interest in the human communication between cultures.

Bruno Devos


Contact JAS

Kristina Engels, kristinaengels@hotmail.com