Hidden Treasures from Tervuren: Masterpieces from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium

Hidden Treasures from Tervuren: Masterpieces from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium

November 9, 1997 to January 25, 1998

Some of the most important works of art from Africa—many never seen outside of Africa and Europe—were on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in the exhibition Hidden Treasures from Tervuren: Masterpieces from the Royal Museum for Central Africa.

The Tervuren Museum is renowned not only for the outstanding wealth of its encyclopedic collections but for the venerable age of many of its objects. Most date from 1890 to 1940, when these masks and sculptures were still in use; for a large number of the oldest pieces, the exact date and place of origin are known.

Some 125 Central African works selected from the galleries and storerooms of the Tervuren Museum were displayed in this international traveling exhibition. They included several large and complete Kongo “minkisi”—visually impressive figures that hold powerful medicines; objects of royal regalia—including stools, staffs, and containers—from the Luba peoples; a Buli workshop kneeling female figure, one of the first works of African art attributed to a particular artist; a figurative coffin from the Ntomba peoples; a variety of masks, ranging from naturalistic white-faced Kongo diviner’s masks to striated Luba and Songye masks; and figures representing kings and chiefs.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa, commonly known as the Tervuren Museum, was founded in 1897–98 by King Leopold II of Belgium to promote commercial and public interest in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Administered as the private property of the Belgian king, this territory became the official Belgian colony of Congo in 1908 and an independent nation in 1960. The museum’s collection of more that 250,000 objects—considered the world’s greatest collection of Central African art—has shaped perceptions of African art; it includes works collected by company and government officials and by missionaries. From the beginning, Tervuren sent scientific expeditions to Central Africa, and the museum became the primary center for Central African research and collections, including all aspects of cultural anthropology—art, archaeology, linguistics, and music—and the natural sciences of botany, geology, and zoology.

A three-year international tour of these masterpieces, which marked the Tervuren’s centenary, began in Ottawa and was on view at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, through October 19. After its showing at the Kimbell, the tour continued in San Francisco, New York, Saint Louis, Chicago, Düsseldorf, and Barcelona.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalogue, The Tervuren Museum: Masterpieces from Central Africa, published by Prestel (Munich and New York). The international tour was coordinated by the Tribal Art Centre in Basel, Switzerland. Promotional support of this exhibition was provided by Norwest Banks.

Caption: Bed Panel (detail), Kongo (Yombe). Kangu, Lower Zaire region, wood and pigments. The Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. Gift of N. De Cleene; registered in 1934, RG 35776