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Fragments of the Invisible

Celebrating the transformative acquisition of African art
August 3, 2016
Figure Couple

Constantine Petridis Curator of African Art

Figure Couple 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


In icon of northwestern Congo’s Ubangi region, this figure couple of presumed Ngbandi origin (left) is one of 34 works of Central African art from the private collection of René and Odette Delenne in Brussels that the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired through partial gift in 2010. Truly transformative, the addition of this group of Congo sculptures to the museum’s collection has not only increased its permanent African holdings by more than 10 percent, it has also placed our Central African collection on equal footing with the best museum collections of this kind in North America.

Celebrating the acquisition of the Delenne collection of Congo sculpture and honoring the memory of Odette and René Delenne—who passed away in 2012 and 1998, respectively—Fragments of the Invisible also explores a theme that resonates widely throughout the museum’s collections: the fragment. Not only does the exhibition address the fragment in purely material terms, it also examines its contextual ramifications.

African objects kept in the West are often physically quite different from how they appeared in their original context of use. Damage and deterioration, including breakage and surface erosion, can be intentional or accidental and may be the result of repeated handling or extended exposure to the elements. While in use in Africa, however, objects also often undergo transformations in meaning and function which are typically manifested by changes in their appearance. Most striking in this regard is the accumulation or accretion of added materials to a work’s surface resulting from its application in rituals and ceremonies. Such additions may include accessories and ornaments of all kinds as well as coverings of mostly organic materials such as chewed kola nuts or mud in a multitude of combinations.


Male figures

Male Figure early 1800s–early 1900s. Songye people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood and various other materials; H. 64 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.451

Male Figure early 1800s–early 1900s. Probably Vili people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cabinda, or Republic of the Congo. Wood and various other materials; H. 42 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.433


The archetypal power figure, once inaccurately labeled as “fetish” but now more commonly referred to by its vernacular name, is perhaps the best-known African expression of this concept of accumulation. Especially prevalent in the vast Congo Basin region of Central Africa, it is well represented in the exhibition through a number of examples from the Kongo and Songye peoples. Though Fragments of the Invisible includes some rather well-preserved power figures, such as a medium-sized Songye nkishi, as it is locally known, over time many such power figures have lost most or all of their external accoutrements and accessories, and as a result appear quite naked in the context of a museum or private collection in the West when compared to their original appearance.

However, more than from their accumulative or composite look, Central African power figures derive much of their capacity to mediate between the worlds of humans and spirits from the ingredients contained within certain body cavities. Inserted in a hollow within the head, abdomen, rectum, or other body part, these substances procure the sculptures their supernatural efficacy. Yet many power figures in collections and exhibitions lack any of the ingredients that once empowered them. Thus, at some point in its history, the finial of the ivory scepter of possible Yombe origin also would have been packed with a resin-covered conglomerate of substances. The “undressing” or “emptying” of power figures may result from their continuous manipulation and the hazards of their transportation from Africa to Europe or America, but is sometimes caused by deliberate acts of desacralization or disempowerment on the part of their original users.




Scepter early 1800s–early 1900s. Democratic Republic of the Congo (most likely), Cabinda, or Republic of the Congo, probably Yombe people. Ivory; H. 28 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.447


The adjective fragmentary also pertains to many works of African art as they are kept and displayed in museum galleries or the homes of private collectors such as the Delennes. Indeed, in their original African settings, rarely are figure sculptures looked at on their own but more typically are part of a group of related objects and experienced together as an ensemble. Rather than being exhibited and perceived as stationary objects in a display case or on a pedestal, they most often appear in motion and in conjunction with other forms of artistic expression, including music and song or recitation. This dynamic character of African art and its integrated nature are of critical importance in African festivals and masquerades.

There is also a metaphysical side to the contextual application of fragmentary to the arts of Africa. Indeed most African figures, masks, and other forms of artistic expression relate to the invisible world of spirits. Whether these spiritual entities are ancestors, deities, or more abstract forces, most typically they are represented by or rather embodied in the works in question, which helps explain the abstraction characteristic of so many African works of art. This is especially true of masks, including the helmet mask that was once associated with the Suku people’s puberty rituals for boys (see page 3). Though in reality the audience will know the actual human identity of the wearer, everything possible is done to make outsiders believe that the masquerader is a spirit being. In addition to giving the spirits a visual and tangible material form, masks as well as power figures specifically serve as conduits between the world of the living and the realm of the spirits.


Odette and René Delenne

Odette and René Delenne on their wedding day. Ixelles (Elsene), Belgium, December 2, 1958. Photographer unknown. Delenne Family Archives


Fully aware of the deep spiritual references of African art but equally sensitive to its universal aesthetic qualities, Odette Delenne was thrilled when she found the Cleveland Museum of Art willing to become the new home for her Congo sculptures. In doing so, she fulfilled her wish to preserve as a lasting legacy the integrity of the core of the African art collection she and her husband had assembled and cherished over many decades. However, her choice to transfer the collection to an art museum in this country, rather than to see it integrated into one of the ethnography museums in Belgium, was guided first and foremost by the fact that the Delennes considered African art equal to the art from any other part of the world, a philosophy which the Cleveland Museum of Art has endorsed ever since its inception in 1913.  

Cleveland Art, September/October 2013