Behind the Scenes: Fragments of the Invisible: The René and Odette Delenne Collection of Congo Sculpture

Figure Pair, late 1800s–early 1900s. Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably Ngbandi people. Wood, copper, glass beads, iron, fabric; h. 45 and 41 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.459.1–2

Fragments of the Invisible marks the American debut of 34 works of Central African art acquired in 2010 by the Cleveland Museum of Art from the Belgian couple René and Odette Delenne. Many of the works that make up this transformative acquisition have never before been published nor exhibited. The addition of this group of Congo sculptures to the museum’s collection not only increases its permanent African holdings by more than ten percent, but it also places it on equal footing with the best museum collections of this kind in North America.

Celebrating the Delenne collection and the memory of the couple who assembled it, the exhibition explores the concept of the fragment, addressing it in a purely material way but also from a contextual perspective. Indeed, in their original African setting, figure sculptures and masks are typically part of an ensemble of related objects and often appear dynamically in conjunction with music, dance, and song. Moreover, many works of African art refer to and derive meaning from an invisible realm beyond the material world, serving as conduits between the living and the spirits.

While the Delennes obtained a number of their Oceanic works in the South Seas, all of their Congolese art was acquired from other collectors and dealers, mainly in Belgium but sometimes also in France. The strong presence in the Delenne collection of material stemming from what is currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo has everything to do with Belgium’s colonial history. Today, more than half a century after the DRC received its independence from Belgium, Congolese art remains the focus of many African art collections in the European nation, and Brussels remains one of the world’s premiere centers of the African art trade.

Female Bowl-Bearing Figure, late 1800s–early 1900s. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luba people. Wood, glass beads, iron; h. 40.8 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection , Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.454  

Some of the works in the Delenne collection were likely collected in Africa either shortly before or after the Congo achieved independence in 1960, but very few, if any, were in use during the brutal reign of Leopold II between 1885 and 1908. The object with the most precise colonial provenance in the Delenne collection is the Luba bowl-bearing figure, pictured above, that they bought from the Belgian art dealer Rik Elias in 1968. This work was once in the private collection of Gaston Heenen, former “gouverneur-général” of the Belgian Congo, who acquired it during his term in Africa between 1911 and 1933. 

The installation of these 34 works that make up the Fragments of the Invisible exhibition is near completion. See some behind-the-scenes snapshots from this week's installation process below, and be sure to see the exhibition for yourself when it opens this Sunday, October 27, free at the Cleveland Museum of Art!

Fragments of the Invisible is open Sunday, October 27, 2013 through Sunday, February 9, 2014 in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery.

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