Frère Joseph Cornet, director of the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo and André Leka-Gala at work, Kinshasa, Congo (Democratic Republic). Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Joseph Aurélien Cornet

and His Importance to Classic Congolese Art

October 15, 2017 By: Leif Birger Holmstedt

After having bought a Bushoong Bongo mask in 1992 from Alain Naoum in Brussels, I wrote to the expert and author on art from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Frère Joseph A. Cornet, to get some information about the mask’s scarifications and promptly received a comprehensive response to my questions. From then on, Frère Cornet became my mentor in the creation of my Kuba collection, and a great help in the understanding of Congolese art.

At one point I got an invitation to visit him at his home in Fexhe-Slins; it was an invitation I was very happy to accept. With the many years Frère Cornet had spent in DR Congo, from 1964 to 1992, he should have been able to produce an interesting collection. However, this was not the case—he was the owner of only a single mask, a Ngaady aMwash, which to my surprise, he presented me with! To my question as to the reason why, after his many years in DR Congo, he did not have an ethnographic collection, he said: “When one collects for a museum one has loyalty to consider—one cannot collect for oneself as well!

Frère J.A. Cornet lived in a large two storey town house in Rue Provinciale 543, with iron railings facing out towards the street. On the gate was a picture of a large ferocious German shepherd, which almost put an end to my visit, but I made a quick decision and continued with trembling legs towards the front door, where I was welcomed by the friendliest of collies.

Bushoong Bongo Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Leif Birger Holmstedt Collection
Bushoong Bongo Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Leif Birger Holmstedt Collection

Frère J.A. Cornet shared the house with Frère Georges Andre—he took care of all the work in their large vegetable garden. The ground floor contained Cornet’s research centre, and what there wasn’t of ethnographic objects, there was instead shelving filled with hundreds of card index boxes that contained Cornet’s vast archive of his long-standing scientific research findings.

Here, there were a large number of notebooks from Frère Cornet’s numerous field missions where he, in his meticulous handwriting, had described everything from the visited villages’ political and social organisations, their relationship with neighbouring ethnic groups, to the tribal clothing, their scarification patterns, house construction, and their oral traditions. There were meticulously drawn or photographic reproductions with notes of ethnographic objects he had acquired for the national museum. Furthermore, Cornet could produce a unique photo archive of over 20,000 slides and negatives from his field missions!

This visit was the beginning of a warm friendship that lasted until Frère Cornet’s death in 2004.

Page from Frère J. A. Cornet's field notebooks from his 28 year residency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which began with a teaching appointment at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1964.

Bushoong-Shoowa Mission
22 November – 10 December 1974
Some of Frère J. A. Cornet's field notebooks were compiled in collaboration with Kuba Prince Kwete Mwana on Bushoong culture including titleholding, initiation rites, royal installation, and burial rituals. The notebook includes lists of objects purchased for the national museum collection.

Bushoong-Shoowa Mission
22 November – 10 December 1974

Frère Joseph Aurélien Cornet was born in 1919 on a small farm in the Ardennes in southeastern Belgium. He had already as a boy decided to devote his life to the service of the Lord. From 1938 to 1943 he studied Philosophy and History of Art at the Catholic University in Louvain in Belgium. He then taught History of Art and Aesthetics at Institut Saint-Luc in Liège, and it was against this background he travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1964, to teach at l’Academie de Kinshasa.

In 1970 Frère Cornet accepted an offer from the Ministry of Culture in Kinshasa to lead the establishment and the collection of ethnographic objects for a new national museum in the city. In addition, he would also be responsible for training the future African museum leaders who would eventually take over from him.

J. A. Cornet, Bushoong-Shoowa Mission, 1974


Although in 1975 he was appointed Director General of l’Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo, he still spent a lot of time on field work. He undertook long journeys by car along poor roads or by river barges and pirogues around DR Congo’s many rivers, to visit ethnic groups deep in the rather impenetrable jungle—with the purpose of collecting objects for the museum. 
Although to a Congolese it was relatively unknown to collect for a museum, he enjoyed a great understanding and respect for his successful work. This prompted several private African art dealers to drive around in their own Jeep inscribed with the words “Musées nationaux” and claiming to be representatives of the museum in Kinshasa, for, in this cunning way, to get the groups they visited to relinquish some of their fine ethnographic objects.

Frère J. A. Cornet's field notebooks feature a study of Woyo masquerades with photographs of village masquerades.

Woyo Mission
November – December 1974
Woyo mask in
Frère J. A. Cornet's field notebook.

Woyo Mission
July 1982
Frère J. A. Cornet's field notebooks include notes and photographs of masks employed by the Woyo in Kinshasa.

Woyo Mission
August 1982 – October 1984

It was first and foremost Frère Cornet’s relentless quest for ancient ceremonial objects and his feel for the artistic qualities that made the museum a place where the Congolese could see and experience a diverse range of pure masterpieces; a unique ethnographic cultural wealth in the form of masks and figures, but also various types of utensils, weapons and musical instruments.

In a country with more than 300 different ethnic groups, the museum gained a great social relevance for the people who had moved to the big city. Here they could identify with the ethnographic articles that came from their own region and tribe, and thus collectively feel a stronger sense of belonging to the museum.

Woyo Ndunga Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Woyo Ndunga Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Woyo Ndunga Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Royal Museum for Central Africa

In connection with the museum, Cornet also established a documentation centre for the study of Congolese art, with contents that comprised several hundred audio recordings of traditional music as well as thousands of photos and film footage of ceremonies and dances.

In the period from 1970 to 1994 Frère Cornet undertook over 40 field missions, where some of the most important were contacts with the Kingdom of Kuba, a union or federation comprising twenty different ethnic groups. The federation had from its formation been ruled by a king from Bushoong—the largest of the twenty groups. 
Frère Cornet often visited this otherwise isolated kingdom, which because of its location in one of DR Congo’s most inaccessible forest areas, had been protected from outside intrusion—in earlier times the kingdom had also avoided the transportation of slaves.

The Bakuba, who highly valued this isolation, did everything in their power to prevent intruders from violating the border to their territory.
 It was the black American Presbyterian missionary William H. Sheppard who in 1892, as the first foreigner, gained access to the kingdom.
 Many anthropologists had previously tried to make contact with this exciting and unapproachable people, but they were repeatedly rejected and gifts that had been sent to the king were immediately returned.

Sheppard’s four-month long stay at the Bakuba court became one of the highlights of his life and he wrote home to the Presbyterian congregation in the USA: “I grew very fond of the Bakuba… Of the races I’ve seen in Africa, they were the finest looking; they were dignified, graceful, courageous, honest, with an open smiling countenance and really hospitable. Their knowledge of weaving, embroidery, wood carving and smelting was the highest in equatorial Africa.”

William H. Sheppard with the Bakuba, 1897

In the following 78 years, until in 1970 when Frère Cornet made contact with the Bakuba, only a few white people had gained access to the King’s Palace, among which was the Hungarian-born anthropologist Emil Torday (1875-1931).
 There was a rare trust between the Bakuba leadership and Frère Cornet, and it was on the basis of this that he had the opportunity to gather material for the book Art Royal Kuba, an outstanding publication, in which Cornet has produced a detailed analysis of the significance of 11 known carved Bakuba king figures’ many details and symbols. He describes the royal palaces’ architecture, the royal dress, as well as talking about the Bakuba’s design of motifs, masks, regalia and musical instruments. It is a rare and beautiful achievement of unique research work about the Bakuba’s court.

Kuba king figures—detailed photographs of Kuba ndop sculptures from several museum collections.

Frère J. A. Cornet's Field Notebooks, July 1983

On one of his many visits, Frère Cornet was in 1990 asked to stay with the son of a deceased Bakuba king, an old chieftain and nobleman named Kwete Mwana in the town of de Kosh in Western Kasaï, to help him record the Bakuba's secret statutes and unwritten laws. Frère Cornet had in 1971 already met and talked with Kwete Mwana, in the kingdom's capital Mushenge, but he had at the time withheld his knowledge of this conversation, because the king's noblemen could not disclose information about the Bakuba's laws and traditions, and the decree of not keeping them secret was dangerous to cross.
 But in 1990 Kwete Mwana intimated to Cornet that time was pressing, because if action was not taken now, a great and rich secret tradition around the kingdom and about the true meaning of the masks and figures would be lost forever, upon his death.

Frère Cornet was, during this four-week long mission, given quarters in Kwete Mwana's own house, a large home and residence for his family, which consisted of six wives and numerous children. There, two small rooms were put at his disposal, one of which was equipped with a table and a chair. The second had only a bed and was without windows and intended for sleeping. Frère Cornet had reserved the mornings for writing, rewriting, and copying the notes that were taken the day before, during the conversations with Kwete Mwana in his large office or on his veranda.

Throughout the time of conversations and the work of writing down was taking place, Cornet primarily lived off the rice and Portuguese tinned sardines he had brought along—the house ensured the cooking of the rice. And the supply of palm wine, which was of the best quality, was provided by the host. Cornet's stay with this old nobleman, was, as was the case for William H. Sheppard in 1892, one of the highlights of his 'African Life'. The written information about the Bakuba's secret statutes and unwritten laws, could not, according to Kwete Mwana's express orders, be published until after his death! However, Cornet never had cause to.

A couple of years before Frère Cornet died, he sent me all the material comprising 72 written pages as well as a genealogical overview written by Pére Valére.

After 22 years of tireless work establishing the museum, of which the last 18 years were as Director General, in 1992 Frère J.A. Cornet retired and returned to Belgium.

L’Institut des Musée Nationaux du Congo was until 1997, when President Mobutu was overthrown, an ethnographic museum of a high international standard, with its contents of masks, figures and other exciting objects from ethnic groups spanning all of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 
When Mobutu hurriedly left the country, under the cover of darkness, he also had a collection of rare masks and figures, including the very precious Kuba king figure, in his luggage. The king figure, which had been returned to DR Congo along with other objects by the Africa Museum in Tervuren in Belgium, never made it inside the walls of the museum in Kinshasa; Mobutu wanted the figure placed along with other treasures in his grand marble palace. The day after he had left the country, a number of other rare objects from the museum were found in a hangar at Kinshasa airport, which the fugitive ex-president did not have not have time to take with him.

Books by J. A. Cornet

'A Survey of Zairian Art'
J. A. Cornet
North Carolina Museum of Art, 1978
J. A. Cornet
Mercatorfondt Antwerpen, 1989
'Art Royal Kuba'
J. A. Cornet
Edizioni Sipiel Milano, 1982
'Art of Africa'
J. A. Cornet
Phaidon Press Limited London, 1971

Musée Nationaux du Congo’s collection—which before the president was overthrown comprised over 40,000 items—was, according to Professor Pierre de Maret of Musée de Tervuren in ‘Le Soir’ June 2, 1997, a very important collection, rich in significant objects and among them a number of highly prized and exceptional masterpieces, such as the figure of King Mbop’a-Kyeen, the Bakuba king from 1810-1840 (the very figure in Mobutu’s luggage).

The plundering of the museum continued during the subsequent president’s rule. It was carried out by, among others, the museum’s personnel where the employees, due to the lack of payment of wages, resorted to the popular Congolese pop star Pepe Kalle’s Article 15, which was to the effect that you’ve got to look after yourself. Many of the stolen objects have since, through African intermediaries, found their way to Europe and the USA. 
In order to prevent any onward sale, there had been talk of producing a catalogue with pictures and descriptions of the most precious and significant masks and figures that had vanished from the museum, and thus making auctions, museums, galleries and collectors aware of who the objects rightfully belonged to. This initiative was however abandoned owing to serious anonymous threats.

Frère J.A. Cornet had before his death in 2004 bequeathed his scientific archive and his photo archive to Loyola University New Orleans.

Leif Birger Holmstedt

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also authored a number of ethnographic articles. This article is written based on Leif's correspondence with Frère J.A. Cornet and their conversations in Fexhe-Slins, Belgium and at Leif's home in Odense, Denmark.

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