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Joseph-Aurelien Cornet: 1919-2004

by Louis de Strycker

found at African Arts, Summer, 2004

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Joseph-Aurelien Cornet died at the residence of the Christian Brothers in Ciney, Belgium, on January 20, 2004, aged 84. In 1970 he had been appointed the first local director of the Institut des Musees nationaux du Congo (IMNC)--from 1971 to 1997 the Institut des Musees nationaux du Zaire (IMNZ)--in Kinshasa.

He had come to the museum from teaching assignments and directorships at the Institut superieur d'Architecture and the Institut superieur des Arts plastiques at the Academie des Beaux-arts. Joseph Cornet introduced the first course on Congolese arts to the program and lectured there and at the Universite Lovanium in Kinshasa. Backed by an eager staff ready for extensive fieldwork, Cornet travelled widely in the Congo and liked best his many field trips to the Woyo region in Lower Congo and the Kuba region in the Kasai, in and around the royal capital of Nsheng. For twenty-eight uninterrupted years he remained a resident of Kinshasa.

Cornet was born on May 20, 1919, in the rural community of Graide on the western edge of the Ardennes region in Belgium. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in Louvain, entering their novitiate in 1935 and obtaining a teaching degree in 1938. He received bachelor's and master's degrees--the latter in art history--from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1945, to be followed by a doctorate in art history in 1970. In 1949 he was moved to Liege, where for fifteen years he taught art history and aesthetics at the St. Luke School of Art and Architecture, serving the last two years as director. In 1964, he left for Kinshasa to teach at the Christian Brothers Academie des Beauxarts. Cornet taught aesthetics and art history and chaired the expansion of the institution with the Institut superieur d'Architecture and the Institut superieur des Arts plastiques.

The IMNC was officially founded in March, 1970, and Cornet was appointed directeur general adjoint. The IMNC in Kinshasa began without a building or a single object remaining from previous institutions, but with a strong mandate and with powerful backers: the presidency and Museum of Tervueren with Lucien Cahan. Priority was given to field collecting, and within a few years the museum amassed over 50,000 objects, acquired during ethnographical and archaeological missions. Cornet, who collected among the Woyo and the Kuba and along the Lukunye and Lukuro Rivers amongst the Nkundu, travelled throughout the country for long periods. A strong administrative staff made this possible. Cornet was as active in promoting and mentoring students sent from the Universite nationale du Zaire in Lubumbashi to research the collections as he was helpful to expatriate researchers seeking the museum's official governmental support for their own fieldwork.

In the early 1970s Cornet had an awkward confrontation with the young Jacques Kerchache, the dealer who later became the advisor on Arts premiers to French president Jacques Chirac and a board member of the Musee du quai Branly. Kerchache had crisscrossed Zaire with a team of producers and cameramen for the French organization Explorations du Monde. When the group returned to Kinshasa, laden with artifacts, Cornet had Kerchache arrested and let him wait a long two weeks before his new-found wares were released. Cornet was well aware of the complexities and inner workings at play and demanded full field and photographic documentation of the material before having Kerchache fined and expelled. Kerchache never forgot and never went back.

The incident illustrates the pragmatic policy that Cornet adopted on the exportation of art and craft pieces. Unable to prevent illicit exports, he nevertheless expected to document as many significant pieces as could be tracked down. He sought to store in the museum's database as much field documentation as could be retrieved. During the first five years of the museum's existence, when funds were readily available, he and his staff would buy on field trips as well as from runners, dealers, local collectors, and the Devil himself as long as the piece fit the collecting goals set by the museum and by the financial strictures imposed by ever-tightening budgets.

In 1987 Cornet retired from the directorship, handing his stewardship to Alphonse Lema Gwete. Cornet was appointed scientific advisor to the museum and member of the board, functions he held until 1994. Cornet returned to Belgium permanently in October, 1992. It was a most active retirement and Cornet continued to publish and to lecture. Until the last days of his life, Cornet also tracked objects lost or looted from the museum in the political unrest following the 1997 collapse of the Mobutu regime, notifying public authorities and warning institutions and collectors whenever one of the looted pieces appeared on the market.

It is the same thoroughness in gathering field data that led Cornet in his retirement years to collate a database on the arts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which contains more than 15,000 pages of illustrated objects, comments, and documents. He was planning a ten-volume history of art in the Congo. His documentation for this project has been willed to Loyola University in New Orleans, which is establishing a center at the Special Division of the J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library where the bequest, including some forty-one field notebooks, will be deposited and where his photographic archive of some 20,000 field negatives and field slides will be available for study.

Cornet was the author of several important works on Congolese art. His first was a lavishly produced commissioned book titled Art of Africa: Treasures from the Congo (Phaidon, 1971). The book reviewed previous work on the arts of the Congo following the classic approach proposed by Frans M. Olbrechts. With the trove of new data collected in the first rush of fieldwork after the founding of the IMNC, Cornet was willing to remodel some of the stylistic areas. The book remains a valuable visual introduction to and a standard review of the art of the Congo.

In 1975 Comet came to America for the New York opening of the promotional exhibition "100 Masterworks from the IMNZ," which toured the country for over a year. He was back in Los Angeles in 1977 to document with short notices and brief captions the collection in the Robert and Dona Bronson house. The catalogue of the collection, with Cornet's commentaries, was published as A Survey of Zairian Art: The Bronson Collection, in conjunction with an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, in 1978.

Cornet had already published Pictographies Woyo (Quaderni Poro, 1980), a study on Kongo-related material when, in 1981, Robert Farris Thompson offered to collaborate on what became a momentous study of funerary art traditions in Kongo societies. The catalogue, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds, was occasioned by the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Cornet had realized early in his tenure the importance of Kongo funeral material appearing on local markets and was prompt to collect these objects over many field missions. Thompson included a local and varied documentation gathered by the IMNZ in his broad hermeneutics of Kongo symbolism.

Cornet's research among the Kuba produced his most accomplished publication, Art royal Kuba (Edizioni Sipiel, 1982), regarded by many as ground-breaking. Seven years later, Cornet and photographer Angelo Turconi published a richly illustrated introductory presentation of the land, nation, and peoples of Zaire, Zaire: Peuples/Art/Culture (Fonds Mercator, 1989). The book looks at the physical and economic geography of the country, at industrial expansion and agricultural changes, and weaves history, art, and tradition into the new social and national configuration. About one third of its 480 photographs illustrated art objects from the IMNZ and from private collections. Archival photographs helped visualize lost social environments while field photographs showed the actuality of many festivals.

Cornet always led a frugal and ascetic life, able to live contentedly for weeks on end with the same menu of rice and dried fish. He kept a regular schedule and owned only one suit, or so it seemed. Not even in the remotest African setting would he be caught without a tie and a Christian Brothersfsc tie-pin, possibly carrying a jacket on his arm and always a camera around his neck--his passion was photography. Cars were to be driven by others and he never tried, for the common good of all, he said; thus, he waited and walked. Since he was blessed with strong health, medical appointments were minimal if not unknown until his last couple of years.

During and even after his tenure at the IMNC, political and economic crises temporally halted his aims and social upheavals threatened the very existence of the museum but the director and his immediate successor held on for the sake and for the good of the institution. Cornet operated methodically and realistically. Some onlookers of the Congolese scene over the years followed approvingly the thoroughness of the institutional work he accomplished, the scope of his own field research and that of the museum staff. For those who admired his steadiness and unpretentiousness, he will remain an exemplary director who bridged two eras in the difficult, often tragic history of African museums. The IMNC is there to stay with thankful remembrance to one of its founders.

COPYRIGHT 2004 The Regents of the University of California
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


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