Mbuti Art in Barkcloth

by Vanessa Drake Moraga, Guest Blogger.

The material, the visual language, the artistic imagination and the cultural context of Mbuti painting are all of the forest  ­­––  the great Ituri rainforest that once spanned the breadth of central Africa and now occupies the northeast corner of the DR Congo.  This is the home of the Mbuti, nomadic foragers and hunters, who have lived under its canopy for millenia.

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Mbuti bark cloth

Mbuti art has roots in an ancient tradition of abstraction that finds its source in the natural world yet speaks to a modern design sensibility refracting an African aesthetic of syncopated pattern progression and unexpected combination.

The material is fibrous, stripped from the inner bark of Ficus and several other trees, then pounded and wetted into pliancy. This is the primordial fabric; like twining and netting, barkcloth represents one of the earliest textile technologies. Bark tones (white, tan, brown) supply a textured surface for patterning. Plant dyes (the graphite grey of a gardenia-like root mixed with soot, the pungent yellow of turmeric, the chalky red of Pterocarpus) yield some of the many colorants used for compositions that are drawn, painted, daubed or stamped with twig brushes and fingers.

The patterns are organic: twining, cellular, strands, skeins, webs. They evoke twisting vines, leaf shadows, fractal branches, erratic tracks, honeycombs, nests, carapaces, pelts.  They give visual shape to the sporadic staccato buzzing sounds and intermittent silences of the forest world.  Fluid and playful, they vibrate with the rhythm of the forest, catching the flights of insects, the dance of the honey bee, the darting of fish, the songs of the Mbuti.

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A close-up of a Mbuti bark cloth

Lines are eccentric and metamorphic. They interrupt themselves, change direction, shift form, overlap, intersect and diverge, stop abruptly, vanish. This is sensory perception, motion and energy translated into graphic structures and asymmetric biomorphism. The lyrical compositions convey an impression of perpetual development, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness processes of Mbuti artists and the spontaneous, communal spirit in which they are made.

The bark cloth, or pongo, is fabricated by Mbuti men, but it is women who paint the designs, applying the same style of decoration to their faces and bodies.  Working both collaboratively and individually, the artists tap a store of shared motifs and symbols.  Although significance is attached to certain pictorial elements and juxtapositions, meanings are provisional and contextual. Depending on the artist, a sign can allude to a butterfly in one configuration but a bird in another.  A star or a flower. Animal footprints or swarming ants.  Meandering lines conceivably map paths, rivers, or clearings; they also suggest the tangled density of vines in parts of the forest. But essentially, this unique pattern vocabulary is improvisatory, free-spirited and experimental, expressing the individualism and exuberance that is key to Mbuti society.

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Another example of a Mbuti bark cloth

While the chance discovery of the right dye fruit or tree bark might prompt a spur-of-the-moment composition, painted barkcloths are not daily attire.  Traditionally, pongo were made especially for celebrations, such as girls rite-of-passage ceremonies, as well as for gifts and local trade.  They are worn, too, for the dances that mark all ritual and festive occasions, from marriages and births to successful hunts and honey harvests.  Even the rise of a new moon.  For the artistic vitality of the Mbuti, like every aspect of their culture, has always been sustained by – and honored –  the beauty and resources of the forest.

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