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Masquerading: Making the Invisible World Visible
Fragments of the Invisible, now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, marks the American debut of 34 works of Central African art acquired in 2010 by the museum 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 undead.
In the spirit of Halloween and the CMA's MIX: Underneath event tomorrow, we go beneath the surface and examine the spirituality and power behind masks, particularly the Helmet Mask from the Fragments of the Invisible exhibition.
Helmet Mask, late 1800s–early 1900s. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Suku people. Wood, basketry reed, metal; h. 51 cm. René and Odette Delenne Collection , Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2010.450
Helmet-shaped masks were common among various neighboring and related peoples in southwestern Congo. The vertical cylindrical handle extending beneath the chin was originally hidden by a thick fringe of raffia fibers that surrounded the head’s lower edge. The superstructure carved from the same piece of wood represents either a gazelle of the forest or an antelope of the savanna, images typically associated with folktales, proverbs, and personal hunting exploits. Such masks, worn with an elaborate costume consisting of a netted shirt and a fiber skirt, appeared primarily in the context of the initiation of young males into adulthood. The white facial color referenced a mask’s indirect association with the ancestors and its identity as a collective image of the departed.
Whether the spiritual entities are ancestors, deities, or more abstract forces, most typically they are represented or rather embodied in the works in the exhibition. This is especially true of masks, like the one above, whose appearance disturbs the natural order of things by making the invisible world visible and temporarily introducing it into the material world. Most often the literature tells us how masquerading entality many of the onlookers will know the actual human identity of the wearer, most often this is not made public and everything possible is done to make outsiders believe that the masq ueraders are indeed spirit beings.
Like many Congolese masks, including the two Luba masks formerly owned by the Delennes and the Pende and Chokwe masks from the National Museum of African Art, in its original context the Suku helmet mask in the Delenne collection— the only mask in that part of the collection acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art— would meet the above description to the letter. More specifically, it refers to the ancestral realm and symbolizes the ancestors’ watchful and protective supervision of the boys’ puberty ritual and the hardships this transition from adolescence to adulthood entails. Scholars sometimes prefer to speak of the living dead to better convey the dynamic character of ancestors or ancestral spirits and the fact that their infl uence extends beyond their biological or clinical death. Learn more in Fragments of the Invisible at the CMA!
(Excerpts taken from Fragments of the Invisible: The René and Odette Delenne Collection of Congo Sculpture, written by Curator of African Art Constantine Petridis).