Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cleveland Museum Art Acquires Congo Collection

CLEVELAND, OH.- The Cleveland Museum of Art announces the acquisition of a single collection of 35 works of Congolese sculpture from the Belgian collectors René and Odette Delenne. In exceptional condition, these works represent the deep cultural meanings and formal diversity of the art of Central Africa, ranging from the naturalistic styles of the Kongo people to the abstract styles of the Ngbandi people. This acquisition was in part a donation by the Delenne family to the Cleveland Museum of Art, a gift which acknowledges the distinction of the museum’s existing African holdings and importance as a comprehensive art museum.

An exhibition in the spring of 2013 featuring the Delenne collection, along with a companion catalogue, is being planned to celebrate this acquisition, which puts the museum’s African art collection among the best in the United States.”A private collection with a personality and character of its own, and comprising artwork of exceptional quality, at once expands and elevates the Cleveland Museum of Art’s existing African collection,” explains Constantine Petridis, the museum’s curator of African art. David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art elaborates,”These acquisitions bring our collection to a level equal to that of the country's finest African art holdings; while making it possible for us to develop new exhibitions and programs, and conduct new research in the field.”

The René and Odette Delenne Collection
The 35 objects acquired by the museum cover the scope and breadth of Congolese art in that it contains prime representations of most of the dominant styles found in the Congo Basin up to the midtwentieth century. The collection is also comprised of a strong core of objects from the Lower Congo region, inhabited by the Yombe, Vili and other Kongo-speaking peoples. Many works in the collection are distinguished by deep patinas indicating intense usage over a long period of time. However, these objects are quite intact and complete in terms of the preservation of their original accessories and accoutrements, such as feathers, animal hides and pelts and beaded decorations. Also included in the collection are two crucifixes which testify to the early contacts between that part of Africa and Europe, as well as a helmet-like mask from the Suku people of the Kwango-Kwilu region in southwestern Congo.

The René and Odette Delenne Collection is one of the oldest surviving Belgian private collections. The Delenne collection of Congolese sculpture has never been exhibited in its entirety and many objects remain unpublished, a situation that will be addressed by the upcoming exhibition and catalogue organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. However, some of the artworks were included in two exhibitions which are generally recognized as landmarks in the field of African art, the 1970 exhibition Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, organized by Elsy Leuzinger at the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the 1988 exhibition Utotombo, organized by a team of Belgian experts at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

Highlights from the Delenne collection include:
• Male and Female Figure Pair, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ngbandi people.A pair of figures like these stunning works most likely represents the founding ancestral couple of a community. Displayed near a shrine, or simply stored in the house of a husband and wife, such sculptures were believed to bring good luck and offer protection.
• Female Bowl-Bearing Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luba people. Such bowl-bearing figures are among the most important accessories of royal diviners. The female figure is sometimes interpreted as the wife of the spirit by which the diviner is possessed during his divination session. In general, such sculptures belong to the category of mankishi or”power figures” that enable communication with the spirit world.
• Male Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Songye people. An exquisite example of a Songye nkishi or”power figure,” this type of carving was used to deal with all kinds of human trials and tribulations. Assuring the figure’s effectiveness are the animal, plant or mineral ingredients that the ritual specialist assembles and inserts in one or more cavities, most often in the swollen abdomen, or in a horn planted in the skull. Such an implanted horn at once functioned as an”antenna” between earthly and heavenly realms.
• Male figure, Republic of the Congo, Beembe people. This large figure of the Beembe people is arguably the finest and most beautiful of two surviving carvings of this genre, the other being preserved at the Museum of Ethnology of the University of Zurich, Switzerland. The hairdo and beard suggest that this is the representation of a chief or at least a high-ranking male individual. It is believed that the figure belonged to a cult of the ancestors and that its responsibilities included assuring the protection and wellbeing of its owner
• Helmet Mask, Republic of the Congo, Suku people. Such helmet masks, generically called hemba among the Suku, were danced within the context of the nkhanda puberty ritual for young boys. Specifically, they performed within the seclusion of the initiation camp when important charms were shown to the initiates. The masks were also considered charms and believed to posses healing powers.
• Crucifix, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Cabinda, Kongo people. Crucifixes were introduced by Portuguese missionaries in the Kongo region as early as the seventeenth century. At first, these objects were faithfully copied from European prototypes but they would increasingly be transformed to conform to local styles and were quickly adopted by local ritual specialists and used for healing or to guarantee success in all kinds of undertakings. This Christian icon was readily integrated into traditional Kongo culture because it was visually similar to how the Kongo envisioned the world as a crossroads between the world of the living and the dead.

René and Odette Delenne
The Delennes began acquiring African art in the late 1950s and made their last important acquisitions in the late 1970s. Their enthusiasm for African objects was specifically triggered after seeing the Congolese exhibition at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. René Delenne was a graphic artist specializing in book design. For a few years, in the mid-1960s, Odette Delenne (born Lemaître), ran a dealership of non-western art in Brussels. While the Delennes purchased a number of their Oceanic works during their travels to the Pacific, most of their African works were acquired from other collectors, dealers, and occasionally at auction, mainly in Belgium and France. (

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