Five pieces from the Alexis Bonew collection - including the Luluwa mortar from the Henri Lavachery collection, the Nkonde from the Jos Walscharts (lot 22) Collection and the Songye collected by lieutenant Willy-Eugène Claes (lot 13) prior to 1918 - were unveiled to the public during the ground-breaking Tentoonstelling van Kongo-Kunst hosted by Frans Olbrechts in Antwerp from 24 December 1937 to 16 January 1938. The concise catalogue published for this exhibition would then go on to provide the basis for Frans Olbrechts’ seminal work Plastiek van Kongo, the release of which was delayed until 1946 because of the war (Petridis, Frans M. Olbrechts 1899-1958, In Search for Africa, 2001, p. 171).
Frans Olbrechts (1899-1958) - who would go on to be appointed director of the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren in 1947 - was then director of the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Ghent where he taught, and head of the ethnographic section of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. His time in America, especially under the direction of Franz Boas, had a major impact on Frans Olbrechts’ pioneering work, one of the most brilliant manifestations of which was Kongo-Kunst. As a founder of the morphological analysis approach in the study of African art and as one of the “fathers” of Art anthropology, he was “one of the first to question the premise of anonymity of the African artist and to take under consideration the personality of the artist” (Petridis, ibid, p. 21). The “feat never equalled” (ibid, p. 173), which consisted in bringing together the largest ensemble ever dedicated to the art and culture of a single African region (1525 pieces from the Congo) was compounded by Obrechts’ revolutionary approach based on a formal and stylistic study.
The partition of the Congo in four stylistic areas defined there for the first time, was further refined through bodies of closely related sculptures, which highlighted “those stylistic characteristics of the art of the Congo that had hitherto been neglected” (Olbrechts, Kongo-Kunst, 1946, p. 12). Two key ensembles stood out in particular: “the nail and mirror fetishes of the Lower Congo” and the “Songye Mankishi”, which went on to become icons of African art. The famous photographs taken during the exhibition and published in Plastick van Kongo reveal two of the masterpieces of Alexis’ collection, both discovered by Olbrechts in Antwerp collections.