I first came across Vanessa’s work as part of an archive on a Mbuti exhibition she curated at the UC Berkeley Art Museum. She had written an introductory essay for the exhibition – An Eternity of Forest: Paintings by Mbuti Women (1996). This was no dry academic essay, as Vanessa herself says, when she writes, she attempts to “strive to be more literary and poetic, and address aesthetics, while incorporating the relevant cultural and anthropological information.”
In describing some of the characteristics of the Mbuti approach to art, and how they incorporate aspects of their forest surroundings into their work, Vanessa uses these phrases:
makers’ extraordinary capacity to read signs of the visible (the fractal geometry of trees) and the invisible (folded leaves, subtle modulations of insect sounds) into a unique visual language
perhaps Mbuti paintings are best understood as “spiritual scores” whose meaning lies in the alchemical mix of nature and art, tree skin on human skin
Vanessa Drake Moraga is an independent scholar specializing in the ethnographic textile arts of Africa and South America. As guest curator, she has also worked for The Textile Museum in Washington DC, producing a catalog that I deeply covet but is now unfortunately out of print: Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa (2011). She has written many other articles on varied textile subjects, as well as a book on Andean iconography called Animal Myth and Magic.
She acquires pieces and systematically catalogs items for private collectors and museums. I received an impromptu exposure to her deep knowledge and love of her subject at tea, when she delivered a whirlwind tour of the Kuba exhibition catalog, with digressions on William Shephard, an African-American missionary who amassed a vast collection of Kuba textiles when he was eventually allowed into the kingdom in the nineteenth century. I am enormously pleased she has agreed to share this knowledge with a wider audience on the Toghal blog.