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ANDRES MORAGA textile art 1

MBUTI PAINTINGS. The origins of drawing.

The visual tradition and artistic imagination, like the plant materials that are the medium for Mbuti painting, originate in the great Ituri Forest which once spanned equatorial Africa and still covers northeastern DR Congo. This is the home of the Mbuti people, nomadic hunters and foragers who have made art and music under its vine-tangled, leafy canopy for millenia. Mbuti art appears to have its genesis in a prehistoric tradition of abstraction and imagemaking that finds its source in the natural world, refracting the syncopated pattern progressions of the African design aesthetic through a unique perception of their forest habitat. The unconventional, flexible geometry of line and composition also resonates with the visual practices of many contemporary artists outside the region and continent, locating the modern in the ancient and linking the western canon with an extraordinary, vibrant indigenous textile art form. There is, as well, growing acknowledgment of seminal Mbuti influence on the evolution of concepts of pattern combination and design asymmetry in the textile arts of many neighboring African ethnic groups, from the Congo to Cameroon.

The bark cloth paintings suggest the very origins of drawing and artistic and symbolic ideas in Africa, in human culture. It is believed that the Mbuti have inhabited this area for at least 5000 years. There is as yet no archaeological evidence indicating that the forestdwelling Mbuti used, or had access to, the rock outcroppings and cave walls that provided the most typical surfaces for Africa's earliest paintings and petroglyphs. But although their practice of painting on the body and on bark cloth has only been documented for about 125 years, with the first colonial excursions into the region, the long continuity of Mbuti cultural traditions are widely recognized. In addition to their better known, renowned arts of polyphonic music and dance performance, the Mbuti developed an original visual aesthetic and non-figurative symbolic system that creatively and soulfully expresses their relationship to place and time. This is rooted in a cosmology centered on the forest, which is the spiritual core of their culture. Bark cloth is the primordial fabric. It represents one of the most archaic textile technologies developed by human societies, along with the fundamental techniques of felting, twining, and netting. Among the Mbuti the artistic process begins with the actual making of a shaped panel which, as much as any canvas, establishes a frame, an edge, a size and a contained area for design. The raw material is fibrous yet supple. It is stripped from the inner cambium layer of several kinds of tropical forest trees and vines, most commonly Ficus spp., then softened and pounded into pliancy with a hafted tool as a first step in its preparation.

The natural shades of bark (white, tan, orange, brown) supply textured, softly variegated surfaces for patterning, which sometimes also bear the impression of the crosshatched wood or ivory mallet used to beat and shape the fabric. Plant dyes (the graphite gray of a gardenia-like fruit mixed with charcoal, the pungent yellow of turmeric, the chalky red of Pterocarpus) yield some of the colorants used for compositions that are drawn, painted, daubed or stamped with twig brushes and fingertips. 2

The patterns are impressionistic and organic: twining, cellular, strands, skeins, webs. They evoke twisting vines, leaf shadows, fractal branches, celestial patterns, erratic tracks, honeycombs, nests, carapaces, pelts. They give visual form to the ethereal, shifting light effects and acoustic landscape of the forest with its sporadic staccato buzzing sounds, animal and bird calls, and intermittent silences. Fluid and playful, the paintings vibrate with the rhythm of the forest, catching the flights of insects, the dance of the honeybee, the darting of fish, the songs of the Mbuti. Lines are eccentric and metamorphic. They interrupt themselves, change direction, shift form, overlap, intersect and diverge, break abruptly, vanish into emptiness. This is sensory perception, motion, and energy translated into asymmetric structures and biomorphic elements. 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, pongo or murumba in the vernacular, 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 intuitively tap a store of shared motifs and symbols. Although names and meaning are certainly attached to certain pictorial elements, these are ambiguous and allusive, arbitrary and idiosyncratic, rather than static and fixed. Depending on the intention of the artist, a motif may allude to a butterfly in one configuration but to a bird in another. The same sign can represent a star and a flower, while clusterings and swarms of marks may reference the skins of forest creatures such as the okapi or leopard or describe teeming insects and ant trails. Meandering and crossing lines conceivably map paths, rivers, or clearings; they also suggest the tangled density of vines and vegetation in parts of the forest. Organic shapes and clusters evoke the plants that are the basis of material life and the seeds, fruits and other foods essential to subsistence Essentially this unique pattern vocabulary is improvisatory and experimental, expressing the individualism, freedom and exuberant spirit of Mbuti society. While the chance discovery of the right dye fruit or tree bark might prompt a spur-of-themoment composition, painted bark cloths are no longer daily attire. Traditionally, pongo were made especially for celebrations such as girls and boys' rite-of-passage ceremonies and for wrapping newborns, as well for gifts and local trade. They are worn, too, as dress for the dances that mark all ritual and festive occasions, from marriages and births to successful elephant hunts and honey harvests – even the rise of a new moon. The works are made of the moment and ephemeral in nature; but their visual sophistication belies their simplicity of means. Due to their perishable materials and the humid environmental conditions, the only paintings that last for more than a few months are those that have been taken out of the area or otherwise safeguarded. The artistic vitality of this singular tradition is evident, however, conveying a sense of how Mbuti tradition was inspired and informed by the beauty and resources of their unique habitat, a place that is today under increasing social and environmental pressure.




Mbuti artists have developed a collective visual language and style that is free form, non-figurative and rich in unexpected discoveries of line and shape. This is an artistic tradition alive to the vitality, motion, sound, light and organic patterning of the forest landscape, distilling sensory impressions into fluid compositions that draw on a body of eccentric biomorphic and linear geometries abstracted from nature and the objects of daily life. Spontaneous pattern-making is central to the Mbuti way of life. Women regularly paint the faces and bodies of each other and their children with the same designs and colorants they use for the bark cloths. They shave patterns in their hair and play cats-cradle with fiber strings. Men cut patterned leaves to place as clan emblems or abstract signs along forest pathways. Although early visitors to the Ituri region tended to characterize, or even dismiss, Mbuti designs as merely decorative and fantastical, subsequent researchers, such as the influential Africanist Robert Farris Thompson, have recognized the referential quality of many compositions, noting that the Mbuti themselves value designs that "recall something." Ethnographers, including Hewlett, Bahuchet and Hénault, have collected a relatively large pictorial lexicon of graphic signs and ideographs that are both conceptual and expressive (see bibliography). But this pattern vocabulary is very much contextual, shaped by the individual and the moment. Definitions are elastic and idiosyncratic. Pattern names and symbolic allusions shift and slide according to the Mbuti artist or interpreter. Insect, animal and botanical motifs are prominent – although their forms are not explicitly fixed or adhered to. Nuances of difference are coded by notional details, such as a hook that indicates something that flies or creep. So that the silhouette that describes a butterfly in one composition is explained as a bird or flying insect in another, with the specific reference communicated by means of an unrecordable element like an associated sound (the buzzing or whirring of the insect). Indeed, the intangible qualities of sound and mimesis are an important dimension to the pleasure that the Mbuti take in their visual art, resonating with the fundamental role of song, singing and story-telling in their culture. Thompson notes, moreover, that the Mbuti express strong appreciation for compositions that are complex in structure or demonstrate the artist's thoughtful consideration of the mix and interplay of disparate motifs. An ingenuity and variety of pattern are particularly admired, as are – most intriguingly – paintings that sensitively integrate passages of empty space or visual silences within the design framework. Mbuti artistic scope is broad, with distinct styles, color preferences and techniques found among certain groups and clans, as well in bark cloths associated with ritual events like boy and girls' initiations. These styles range from minimal to expressionistic, from a simple idea or form pursued intensively to a lively dialogue between multiple geometrical themes and visual ideas. Mbuti abstraction (if such a unique, expansive aesthetic can even be categorized) is characterized by irregularity, asymmetry of form and arrangement, and impulsive disruptions and digressions of the pattern sequence. This discontinuity is usually attributed to the way the artists fold the bark cloth panels into halves and quarters, either working each section separately or bringing in different hands to do so. That is feasible, although compositions that unfold seamlessly and cohesively across a surface suggest the practice has inspired a deeply ingrained way of conceiving and using pictorial space. For as artist Georges Meurant observes, Mbuti women are "gifted in the spatial distribution of their designs." They play a "secret language" of forest signs with contrapuntal rhythms and variation, ever alert to the synthesis and beauty of the whole. Prehistoric abstraction: punctiform and carved rock art, Kiantapo Caves, DR Congo (from Cornet 1989)


The art of Mbuti women challenges conventional art history [with] painting by women who are also architects,, choreographers and composers of rich, yodel inflected singing...provides an alternative canon [that] establishes a special current in the history of world art, a forager aesthetic – asymmetric, ordered, unpredictable, vividly alive. Robert Farris Thompson, In An Eternity of Forest.


COLLECTING MBUTI PAINTING: a brief survey. MBUTI DESIGN (1995) by Georges Meurant, a well known contemporary Belgian artist and scholar of African art, represented the first major international publication and presentation of Mbuti art: the bark cloth paintings made by Mbuti women, mostly between the 1950s and early 1980s. There had been a flurry of prior interest in this tradition in the early 1980s among art galleries, notably PYGMY DRAWINGS at the Linda Einfeld Gallery, Chicago (1980) and PAINTING FROM A SINGLE HEART at the Fred Jahn Gallery, Munich (1983). A decade later, the Musée Barbier-Muller, Geneva presented ART PICTURAL DES PYGMÉES (1990), soon followed by the exhibition PYGMÉES? at the Fondation Dapper, Paris (1991). The latter publication featured the most thorough and exciting investigation of Mbuti aesthetics to date by Robert Farris Thompson who expanded upon the observations in the revelatory introduction he had contributed to the Jahn catalogue and also established a chronological history documenting the bark cloths scattered among various early museum collections. Until this period of renewed focus, however, this extraordinary tradition of abstract painting had been largely unknown outside the DR Congo, although bark cloths had been collected by anthropologists, ethnologists, researchers residents and visitors to the remote Ituri Forest since the early 20th century. The American Museum of Natural History, NY, notably, has pieces donated by curator Colin Turnbull, author of The Forest People, as well as by the painter, Anne Eisner who, with her husband Patrick Putnam, ran the Ituri camp where Turnbull was based during the 1950s. Even earlier than this, the 1909-1915 AMNH expedition led by Herbert Lang had acquired Mangbetu painted bark cloths which are related to the Mbuti traditions and are sometimes even painted by the Mbuti. Several ethnographic museums (Basel, Geneva, Vienna, Prague), among other European museums, have early acquisitions as well. Meurant's selection was made from a stringently "aesthetic point of view" while acknowledging the spectrum of styles associated with the four distinct Mbuti groups. Within his focus on works of exceptional artistry, Meurant sought to include pieces that had been authentically used and danced within Mbuti culture. That collection was subsequently shown in the exhibition IN AN ETERNITY OF FOREST, organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum/BAMPFA and curated by Vanessa Drake Moraga in October 1996 – the first such survey in the US. A large part of that groundbreaking collection was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum in 2018. Another exhibition was also organized around this date in Berlin featuring a collection assembled by Emmanuel Paye (a former administrator and resident of Zaire, post independence). Although Paye's small exhibition and catalogue PONGO was somewhat overlooked, in fact, a number of the works were published by Meurant in MBUTI DESIGN, either as color plates or in the line drawings Meurant produced to illustrate his comprehensive analysis of the formal components and pictorial order of the Mbuti paintings. The majority of the bark cloths presented in this catalogue were acquired from the Paye collection (supplemented by a few works obtained from Pierre Loos, Martial Bronsin and the estate of Mary Kahlenberg) and several are published in Paye's catalogue, PONGO. ZEICHNUNGEN DER PYGMAEN AUS DEM REGENWALD VON ZAIRE (Peter Hopf, Berlin 1995).


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Vanessa Drake Moraga PHOTOGRAPHY

Ralph Koch © 2020 Catalogue © 2020 Andres Moraga Textile Art and Vanessa Drake Moraga, Berkeley CA ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No text, image or any part of this catalogue may be copied, reprinted, transmitted or utilized in any form, digital or print, context or social media without our express permission.


all works Painted Bark Cloth [pongo or murumba] Mbuti Artists DR Congo. 20th century pounded inner bark fiber (Ficus spp. & other Ituri trees) organic colorants and dyes derived from fruits, leaves & roots painting, subtractive dye painting, stamping with stem or twig and/or finger daubing variable dimensions, as given

author's note absent the voices and insights of the unnamed Mbuti artists to discuss the bark cloth paintings presented in this catalogue, we offer observations on individual works to propose certain ideas that seem pertinent to an appreciation of this tradition as whole. These themes apply equally to many of the other works included here that are not captioned, but which have an expressive power similar to the Mbuti wordless songs that bely interpretation, but are richly inflected with sound and meaning 9


40 x 22.5 ins 100 x 56.25 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), Plate 64



Quirky, unidentifiable shapes occupy a Miro-like surrealist landscape, in which light-hearted improvisations on a dotted triangular or conical element, twisting and pointing in all directions, interact with a scattering of spiky or dotted circles, brushy markings and other linear forms. As with all Mbuti compositions seen outside the particular time and context in which they were created, interpreting the imagery or intent of the artist is speculative. We can merely look to some of the cultural concepts or themes that inform the visual system and have shaped this abstract aesthetic. So it is likely that some of the elements rendered in this work have vegetal connotations. The circular forms certainly evoke seeds, fruits, nuts, pods - a major food source for foragers. And Georges Meurant even proposes that the dotted cones suggest the flowering or ripening of corn – although more in the nature of a visual analogy or metaphor for plant fertility and growth than as a explicit depiction of a favored cultivated food.


33.5 x 23.5 ins 86 x 58.5 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), Plate 86 and as a line drawing, page 110



The signature exploratory style in which Mbuti artists activate and complicate their visual themes and recurring elements is reflected in this animated composition, an interweave of wavering filamentous lines, striated or netted triangles arranged in slanting rows, and crosshatched lozenges linked together in wobbly chains. The inventive play of scale, angle, orientation, open or closed form, and linearity or waviness, keeps the eye in motion across the field. Clusters and trails of dots, animal or bird tracks, X-marks, parallel strokes, and crescent and linear scratchings stipple the ground between the loose vertical/horizontal structure. These vibrational textures imply compositional depths that allow for individual motifs, like the lozenges at lower right, to drop, float or swing weightlessly in space.


33.5 x 22.5 ins 85 x 57 cm

One graphic design (detail above), which features prominently in the Mbuti constellation of signs, has been described as snake, snake skin or other reptilian coat (see Bahuchet 1991 or Hewlett 1991). It seems probable that the element takes inspiration from the striking patterning of the Ituri horned viper that slithers through this forest – although in the non-figurative, non-deterministic canons of Mbuti art, such representational or symbolic renderings, if included at all, resist easy identification.

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 30



An irregularly sectioned framework encloses a multitude of micro-compositions that intensively work a collection of common graphic elements (looped B-s, stars, crosses, sunbursts, striated blocks and circles, dotted triangles, combed or barbed lines, arrows), rendered with numerical intensity and a clarity of line. The vivacious medley of signs and pictograms is a visual chart of Mbuti design. The "patchwork" layout also speaks of the collaborative creative practice enjoyed by Mbuti women, which has kindled an aesthetic of combinational, overlapping, and juxtaposed patternings – even when the bark cloth apparently reflects the work of one hand, as in this harmonious and cohesive composition.


45 x 26.5 ins 114 x 67 cm PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 35




30.5 x 22 ins 76.25 x 55 cm PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), cover This mysteriously dark painting belongs to a rare group within the Mbuti tradition featuring a unique style and technique that appear to be linked with bark cloths made for Sua manhood rituals. 1 (The Sua being one of the four Ituri forager populations, which include the Efe, Aka and Mbuti). It was probably collected in the same forest camp as the other black-ground bark cloths in the Paye collection. These enigmatic works are created by using a subtractive technique that involves painting a mud or pigment-dyed panel with citrus juice. The acid removes the color, tracing a delicate negative design that reveals the underlying orangey color of the bark. Photographs documenting nKumi rites of passage show young male initiates sporting body decoration produced by drawing "negative" designs in a thickly applied, chalky white clay so as to expose the skin underneath. 2 Both forms of decoration, whether executed on skin or bark cloth, represent a kind of "reserve" patterning. The process also recalls archaic methods for creating petroglyphs by chipping away a stone patina to uncover a lighter surface below. Significantly, many of the places in Africa where such rock art is found are also thought to be connected with ritual activities or initiation ceremonies. The compositions display other distinct traits according to Thompson, such as layouts that leave broad areas of the panel empty, usually in the center, as if mapping a clearing in the forest (see cats. 7, 34, 35). Pictorial elements are typically distributed around, or within, these open spaces; in some cases, wavy or zigzag lines (paths? energy? initiation whips?) radiate outwards. It is not known what narrative, if any, attaches to these works or their motifs, which in some cases are clearly figurative, notably a schematic bird in cat. 47 and the cross branches evoking circumcision platforms in cat. 7. Interestingly, Thompson proposes a relationship between their imagery and a body of ideographic signs or initiation symbols recorded for Mangbetu bark cloths – and Mangbetu villagers are the Akas' ritual partners in the coming-of-age ceremonies, as the Bira are for the Sua. Although this exceptional painting does not conform to that particular diagrammatic arrangement, it shares the visual language and mode of representation with its numerical sequence of curiously inexplicable forms juxtaposed with a wild conglomeration of patterning and leopard spotting. Two "ekombi" leaves anchoring one corner (top left), cut with the totemic markings of a particular clan, reinforce the cloth's ritualistic connotations. 3 1 Thompson, "Impulse and Repose: The Art of Ituri Women" in Mbuti Design 1995: 210 2 Randy Olson, "Ituri Forest Pygmies. Who Rules the Forest," photo-essay, accessed at pygmies. 3 Tadashi Tanno, "Plant Utilization of the Mbuti Pygmies" 1981. 18



27.75 x 23 ins 70 x 57.5 cm 20


26 x 25.5 ins 66 x 65 cm 21


33.75 x 23 ins 86 x 58.6 cm 22

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 29

9 32 x 23 ins 81 x 58.6 cm

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 27 23


29.5 x 16 ins 73.75 x 40 cm 24


36 x 14.25 ins 90 x 35. 6 cm

PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995) as a line drawing, page 134, no. 8 25

The spontaneity of a drawing a fluid calligraphic line that engages the fluctuating edges of the bark cloth panel and carves depths of space, multiple visual axes, and eccentric interstitial forms in a flat, monochrome field is a favored Mbuti style. In a setting where twining, climbing vines and hanging roots are omnipresent – both as a conspicuous feature of the forest-scape and as the primary source of fiber for making nets, ropes, belts and baskets – the emphasis on filamentous lines that move, undulate, or stretch cross and lengthwise across the plane is deeply inscribed in Mbuti thought and creative process. In cats. 10 and 11 (previous pages), the wandering line is solid or delicately fringed, fracturing the picture plane into mosaic-like structures and faceted shapes. Here, it is delineated as a single, double, even triple, parallel element, swooping in multiple directions, wrapping around implied curves, rather like an artist painting the rounded form of the human body. Note the accented cross-points, shaded black, and a solitary star and butterfly materializing among clusters of staccato brush strokes that act as micro-tones in between the continuous lines.


32.5 x 23 ins 81.25 x 57.5 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), Plate 8



Net-like designs unfold across both paintings, revealing subtle differences of color and dimensional effect. Hunting nets, ropes, climbing belts, tumplines and mesh baskets made of fiber are essential tools for the traditional Mbuti activities in the forest, so it is not surprising that such objects (among their few material possessions) inspired patterns of this type. In cat. 15, reddish brush strokes create a shadowy reflection behind black lines strung with "knots "and loose "strings" to produce a depth of field in the visual plane. A different rendering of this network in cat. 16 joins the elemental dot and line in deliberate configurations that yield a delicate geometrical structure emphasizing the erratic, flexing, triangular and rhomboid shapes defined by the in-between spaces.

13 left

30.5 x 11.75 ins 78 x 30 cm

14 opposite page

39.5 x 18.5 ins 99 x 46 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), as a line drawing, page 130, no.3 28


A cloud formation of dots expands cross each of these painterly compositions: one pursuing an obsessive, vibrational arrangement of ant tracks veering in all directions, the other emanating in liquidy drips and dissolving lines that follow invisible contours and folds in the plane. There are recognizable artistic styles in the Mbuti tradition, and a hallucinatory play of dotting is one – and certainly among the most ancient and instinctive. Said to allude to the spots of the totemic leopard, a clan emblem and power symbol, in effect this most elemental component makes possible a total compositional freedom where signification is secondary to the repetitive, pulsing activity of stamping the bark cloth with a tiny dot of black dye.

15 22 x 12 ins 56 x 38 cm

16 38.5 x 15.25 ins 96 x 38 cm


PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), as a line drawing, page 142, no.7


17 40 x 41 ins 100 x 102.5 cm Painted with two colors, a radiating circle has a centripetal force and bursting energy generated by the shift of color from red to black and the rotational progression from lines to rosettes. These tiny motifs, which seem to swarm the center, appear to have been applied by stamping the cloth with the end of a fibrous stem or frayed twig dipped into the dye. The compositional focus on a single large-scale element is striking, as is the unusual huge size of the bark cloth panel. Information recorded when the cloth was collected described it as a "blanket" and there is evidence of use that suggests it was either made for a boy's initiation rites or possibly to warp a newborn, which, as the anthropologist Colin Turnbull observed, not only provided a soft covering but symbolically enveloped the newborn in the protective "womb of the forest."



Lists of pattern names collected by researchers, as well as the observations of Anne Putnam, a painter who lived in the Ituri during the 1950s, indicate that numerous designs are linked to natural forms and organic objects present in the Mbuti peoples' world. This imagistic and highly structured composition incorporates a distinctly leaflike element as well as a more abstracted form that is also said to represent a leaf. An unimaginable variety of foliage is a conspicuous feature of the Ituri forest landscape. And leaves have all-purpose utility in traditional life – from the greenery used as impromptu adornments for the head or body to the ephemeral drinking vessels and food wrappers made from folded leaves. Giant "monkolo" leaves supply sleeping or sitting mats and furnish living tiles for covering the exterior of Mbuti huts. Certain leaves even serve a communicative purpose, being cut with signs and clan emblems to claim or indicate pathways or places within a hunting band's sphere of movement in the forest. In a brilliant and fluid transition, the diagonal framework underpinning the composition becomes intertwined with a coiling element that is equally suggestive of the long flexible stalks and vines used to weave bent saplings together to make the rounded trellis structure of the hut. This evocation of a domestic space is further reinforced by blades (resembling the knives Mbuti use to cut the leaves) and the parallel-line motifs denoting the simple beds, chairs and drying racks made from tree trunks, which are similarly identified in the pattern lexicon.


37 x 17.5 ins 94 x 44.5 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), as a line drawing, page 152, no. 4 Cut leaf clan emblems (ekombi) (reproduced by Thompson 1995, after Tanno 1981) 34


The artistic correspondence between a distinctive style of Mbuti art and the spatial distribution of ideograms in ancient rock art is brought out by this and several other paintings in this catalogue which convey a similarly visionary or ritualistic power (see nos. 19, 20). The subtle rippling of the richly colored bark cloth, like the faceted, uneven texture of a stone face, reinforces this impression. So, too, does the organization, combination, repetition and numerical expression of specific graphic signs and dynamic shapes (forking lines, sinuous zigzags, crosses and so on) which appears purposeful not random. While impossible, even risky, to assign or recover significance in their mixture or placement, this imagery suggests a visual code that is conceptual or referential in some way - if not overtly symbolic. The fact that similar ideograms are also incorporated in certain Mangbetu painted bark cloths (nogi) suggests that there is broader underpinning and significance to the Ituri visual system.

19 23 x 19.5 ins 57.5 x 49 cm





20 24.75 x 23.5 ins 70 x 58.75 cm Depictions of human beings are virtually unknown in Mbuti art, except in a few pictorial Sua black-ground paintings that have ritual associations. Yet the insertion of these three schematic figures into a landscape of enigmatic motifs is surely not arbitrary. And their combination with these particular pictograms appears to be both meaningful and key to the significance of the composition. The fact that another bark painting published in Mbuti Design (Meurant and Thompson 1995, Plate 89) not only displays a similarly sparse layout, but incorporates a very similar set of designs, including the distinctive striped rectangular element edged with triangles (above) and "ladder" motifs and jagged zigzags, is richly suggestive. Neither of these two bark cloths appear to have been worn. Were they painted to tell a story, to commemorate a Mbuti ceremony? While Mbuti artists work (in their own fashion) with a collective vocabulary of shapes and signs that are essentially linear or eccentrically geometric and biomorphic, the assumption that these are essentially formal constituents of an abstract aesthetic, as in western contemporary art, may be both reductive and ethnocentric. Although the style is is certainly abstract, the compositions contain visual content or information that further investigation may yet reveal to express Mbuti cosmology and cultural knowledge.



21 42

27.75 x 23 ins 70 x 57.5 cm



30.25 x 16.75 ins 77 x 22.5 cm An elegantly drafted design with delicate angular linear forms composed of two or three stalks, each tipped with a spiral, tufted or frond-like element. The three different terminations spark botanical associations – unfurling fern fronds, small buds or leaflets opening into fullness, a fruit hanging from a twig. As hunter-gatherers subsisting on forest flora and fauna, the rhythms of Mbuti life were established by the seasonal cycles of pollinating, flowering and fruiting plants. Foraging for edible wild foods are a major focus of Mbuti activity and consciousness; images of plant growth and vitality might well be the genesis of many pictorial motifs. But you see these whorls, tendrils and filamentous shapes in many compositions, where the shapes might also evoke combs, whisk brooms or other material or organic items that influence Mbuti imagination and expression of form.




23 right 31.5 x 12.75 ins 80 x 32.5 cm

24 opposite page

30.5 x 19.5 ins 96.5 x 49 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995) as a line drawing, page 132



25 left

29 x 18.75 ins 73.5 x 47.5 cm

26 right 36.25 x 15.5 ins 92 x 39.5 cm



36 x 18.5 ins 90 x 46.25 cm Like the plaque-shaped panel in no. 26 (previous page), which also adds a light brown, this meticulous, fine-line composition makes effective use of several shades of grey-black and a considered use of proportion and tonal contrast to create an intricate visual plane pulsing with a trance-inducing density of dots. This intensive dotting lends a solidity to the linearity so that elusive geometrical half-shapes start forming in the spaces between angular, zigzag and curving parallel lines, especially within the slightly off-center, darker band that becomes a place of transition between the horizontal strata below and the vertical movement of the opposing side.



A distinct orange tinge indicates that a colorant, probably derived from wild turmeric root, was either applied directly over the light brown bark cloth or used to dye the whole panel before painting it. Like red, the pungent color is especially associated with pongo made for girls' elima coming of age ceremonies. The color suffuses the background of a pattern mosaic filled with a variety of looping, tangling lines, gossamer webs and angular networks explored in a doodling, improvisatory style. A few sharply individuated, quasifigural motifs – spiny circles (the dye-yielding Calancoba fruit?), butterflies, insects? grubs? – are intimations of organic matter and life-forms. The cacophony of imagery captures the verdant density and variegated textures of the Mbuti forest habitat.


29.5 x 18 ins 75 x 46 cm PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 32



29 33.25 x 18.5 ins 83 x 46.25 cm 54

30 35 x 18.5 ins 89 x 47 cm

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 34 55


21 x 17.5 ins 55 x 44.5 cm



32 31.75 x 24 ins 81 x 61 cm PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 22 58


33 26.5 x 17 ins 66.25 x 42.5 cm PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 28



34 27.75 x 23 ins 70 x 57.5 cm 62

35 32.25 x 19.5 ins 81.5 x 57.5 cm


36 34.75 x 12 ins 87 x 30.5 cm 64

37 34.5 x 16.5 ins 86.25 x 41.25 cm

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 13


38 30.75 x 13.5 ins 78 x 34 cm 66

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 15

39 23 x 16.5 ins 59 x 42 cm 67

40 30 x 18 ins 76 x 46 cm 68

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 23

41 29 x 18.75 ins 73.5 x 47.5 cm 69

Tapering, curving, bulging, serpentine bands of varying widths run edge to edge, imparting perceptions of movement and evoking swaying, floating and gliding organic forms – reeds or vines, perhaps, or even the gliding motion of an Ituri viper. That snake is distinguished by a vividly colored butterfly pattern similar to the hatched-X motif embellishing these graceful lengths. Whatever the source of the artist's imagination, conception and execution align in the effortless confidence of line, drawn with citrus juice to remove color from the dye-soaked bark cloth. The transformational nature of the technique employed for the design, in which the pattern emerges almost magically out of the dark background as the artist's hand moves swiftly across the surface, speaks of a cosmological dimension. Of a forest-based cosmology, where bark cloth, the skin of forest trees is worn as a protective wrapper by the Mbuti, and certain motifs prominent in the visual arts, allude to creatures within that world that are thought to have special concentration of vital essence, such as the snake, crocodile or turtle. It is this sort of thinking that informs Mbuti aesthetics. And it applies to both the most lyrically abstract and the more pictorially suggestive compositions represented in this collection.

42 28.75 x 24 ins 73 x 61 cm



43 29.25 x 16 ins 74 x 41 cm 72

44 36.5 x 16 ins 91 x 40 cm 73

45 25 x 12 ins 63.5 x 30 cm 74

46 25 x 18.25 ins 63.5 x 46 cm 75

47 31 x 21.25 ins 78 x 54 cm 76

48 30 x 22.25 ins 76 x 57 cm 77

49 32.75 x 16 ins 83 x 40.5 cm 78

PUBLISHED Emmanuel Paye, PONGO (1995), page 36

50 38 x 19.25 ins 95 x 48 cm 79


42 x 16.75 ins 107 x 42.5 cm 80

PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), Plate 75, page 99


52 28 x 15 ins 71 x 38 cm



Unlike the majority of works shown in the catalogue, this bark cloth shows signs of use in the oily surface, stained with the vegetal and palm oils used for cosmetic purposes and girls' rite of passage ceremonies, and the two small burn holes, which probably resulted from dancing too close to a camp fire. The pair to this bark cloth is now in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and it is possible the two pieces were worn together, back and front in the traditional manner. The patina imparts a layered, painterly quality to the lattice design, emphasizing the visual echo of the rippling grain of the bark cloth itself, which was pounded with a hatched beater. The composition reveals deft control of the under/over linearity, so reminiscent of the weave of the Mbuti hunting net. The design surely invokes the importance of the hunt, of hunting magic, and of the womens' co-operation in driving small animals into the net's invisible lines – all defining aspects of Mbuti culture.

53 28.25 x 13.75 ins 72 x 35 cm PUBLISHED Georges Meurant, MBUTI DESIGN (1995), as a line drawing, page 132



54 28 x 19 ins 71 x 48 cm Daubing thumb and finger prints on a rock surface or cave wall is one of the oldest human ritual and artistic activities. The style has been connected with trance experiences and hunting magic. Mbuti women and girls continue this practice, especially during initiation periods, by stamping their fingers in white clay or black pigment and decorating each other's bodies and faces with swathes of dots and swirling lines. The spontaneity and energy of that process is transferred to this bark cloth painting, which exudes an animal vitality in its combination of leopard spots and thick black stripes resembling the striking stripe patterns of the elusive Ituri forest animals, the okapi and the bongo antelope.



55 39 x 21 ins 97.5 x 52.5 cm 88

56 33 x 19.75 ins 82.5 x 49.5 cm 89

57 24.5 x 14 ins 62 x 36 cm 90

58 28 x 17.75 ins 71 x 45 cm 91

59 34 x 16.5 ins 86 x 41 cm 92

60 21.5 x 16.5 ins 54.5 x 41 cm 93

Pounding the inner cambium bark

Texturing the bark surface

Hafted ivory pounder

Painting technique

Information on dye and plant sources based on: David Wilkie (personal communication, 1993); Barry Hewlett and L.L.Cavalli-Sforza (unpublished ms. 1989); William Wheeler (personal communication 1995); Tadashi Tanno, "Plant Utilization of the Mbuti Pygmies", see References.


Photographs by Patrick Claes (provided personally circa 1990, also published in Art Pictural des PygmĂŠes) and William Wheeler, published in Efe Pygmies: Archers of the African Rain Forest, Rizzoli, 2000.

FABRICATION OF THE BARK CLOTH BARK CLOTH The cloth is prepared from the inner cambium layer of bark obtained from about 20 species of tropical trees and woody vines, which supply a variety of different color grounds. The most common sources are Ficus. spp., including F. perussii, F. rupicola, and F. vallis-choudae, which is favored for its durability and receptivity to the dye. Several other unidentified species are also reported, such as trees known as lengbe (used for a light color bark), tembu, pongo pongo (for brown bark) and sapo or supa (light red bark) in the local languages. PROCESS The bark cloth is prepared by men, who cut a narrow length of woody bark out of the living vine or trunk and then peel off the soft, fibrous inner cambium layer (bast). The roughly rectangular or square panel is soaked in water, then pounded with an ivory or wood mallet or an elephant tooth until it expands in size and becomes supple. The end of the bark beater may be crosshatched, imparting a subtle texture to the cloth. The cloth is then smoked or left to dry before the surface design is applied. Undecorated bark cloth is sometimes immersed in black or red mud or a dye bath of to produce a solidly colored surface. DYES AND COLORANTS Dyes or pigments are prepared by women, who are also the artists. They are extracted from tree saps and the juices of various leaves and fruits. Black, Blue, Gray Rothmannia whitfieldii, the pulpy fruit, known in the vernacular as tato or kange, yields an inky black dye that is fixed with charcoal from burned wood or soot from cooking pots. This is the socalled "gardenia" fruit named by Turnbull and frequently repeated in the literature about bark painting. Also Coffea azeli, Mukuna flagellipes, Simirestis welwitschia. Blue may obtained from an unidentified citrus fruit, possibly Citrus medica, which is also used to "subtract" or remove color from a mud-dyed cloth to create designs. Red Pterocarpus soyauxii: the powdered heartwood of the tropical red hardwood tree, obtained by trade, is mixed with palm oil or water. Widely known as tukula or ngula, this vivid red pigment is used extensively for textile dyeing and for cosmetic and ritual purposes across central Africa. Also Landolphia jumellei. Yellow, Orange Zingiberaceae (wild turmeric) root, ground and dissolved in water; Also, the spiny orange fruit of Calancoba welwitshii and Chloroflora excelsa. Light Green Manihot esculanta (manioc) leaves, pulverized and mixed with water. The Mbuti trade for this cultivated crop. Mud immersions in tannic-rich, black, ocher or reddish brown (poto poto) muds produce tinted grounds and sometimes draw out naturally occurring striations in the material. 95

William Wheeler. An Efe Mbuti Camp, Ituri Forest. From Efe Pygmies. Archers of the African Rain Forest, Rizzoli 2000.



BAILEY, ROBERT, and PATRIC CLAES ET AL 1990 ART PICTURAL DES PYGMEES (Geneva, Musee Barbier-Mueller) COQUET, MICHELE 1993 TEXTILES AFRICAINES (Paris, Adam Biro) CORNET, JOSEPH 1982 ART PYGMEE in SURA DJI- VISAGES ET RACINES DU ZAIRE (Paris, Musee des Arts Decoratifs) 1989 LES PYGMEES in ZAIRE: ART/PEUPLE/CULTURE (Anvers, Fonds Mercatur): 143-154 DE FOY, GUY PHILIPPART 1984 LES PYGMEES D'AFRIQUE CENTRALE. COLLECTION ARCHITECTURES TRADITIONELLES(Roquevare, Editions Parentheses) EINFELD, LINDA 1980 PYGMY DRAWINGS (Chicago, Linda Einfeld Gallery) HALLET, JEAN-PIERRE and A. PELLE 1973 PYGMY KITABU (New York, Random House) HEWLETT, BARRY and CAVALLI-SFORZA, LUCA 1989 BARKCLOTH DESIGNS OF MBUTI WOMEN (unpublished manuscript) LEWIS-WILLIAMS, DAVID 2002 THE MIND IN THE CAVE (London, Thames & Hudson) PAYE, EMMANUEL 1995 PONGO. ZEICHNUNGEN DER PYGMAEN AUS DEM REGENWALD VON ZAIRE. (Berlin, Peter Hopf) MEURANT, GEORGES 2010 Painted or Embroidered Drawings by Women of Equatorial Africa. In OUT OF AFRICA, catalogue of an exhibition curated by A. Kren (Dallas, Southern Methodist University). MEURANT, GEORGES and ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON 1995 MBUTI DESIGN. PAINTINGS BY PYGMY WOMEN OF THE ITURI FOREST. (London, Thames and Hudson) 1991 LE DESSIN DES MBUTI DE L'ITURI in ARTS DE L'AFRIQUE NOIRE 78 ET; 15-22 TANNO, TADASHI 1981 Plant Utilization of the Mbuti Pygmies -with Special Reference to Their Material Culture and Use of Wild Vegetable Foods. In AFRICAN STUDIES MONOGRAPHS VOL 1: 1-68 THOMPSON, ROBERT FARRIS 1983 PAINTINGS FROM A SINGLE HEART, PRELIMINARY REMARKS ON THE BARK-CLOTH DESIGNS OF THE MBUTE WOMEN OF HAUT-ZAIRE (Munich, Fred Jahn Gallery) 1995 Impulse and Repose: The Art of Ituri Women in Meurant and Thompson, MBUTI DESIGN 1995: 185-215 THOMPSON, ROBERT FARRIS and SERGE BAHUCHET 1991 PYGMEES? PEINTURES SUR ECORCE BATTUE DES MBUTI (HAUT ZAIRE) (Paris, Musee Dapper) TURNBULL, COLIN 1962 THE FOREST PEOPLE (New York, Simon and Shuster) 1965 THE MBUTI PYGMIES: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC SURVEY (New York, AMNH) 1983 THE MBUTI PYGMIES:CHANGE AND ADAPTATION (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston) WHEELER, WILLIAM 2000 EFE PYGMIES. ARCHERS OF THE AFRICAN RAIN FOREST (New York, Rizzoli) 97


Photographs by William Wheeler, from Efe Pygmies: Archers of the African Rain Forest, Rizzoli, 2000.


Art itself must have begun as nature – not as imitation of nature, nor as a formalized representation of it, but simply as the perception of relationships between humans and the natural world. Lucy Lippard



ANDRES MORAGA textile art

Profile for Andres Moraga Textile Art

MBUTI PAINTINGS. Paintings on Bark Cloth by Mbuti Artists of the Ituri Forest, DR Congo.  

Better known for their magnificent, polyphonic musicality, the lyrical, abstract compositions of Mbuti women – an ancient hunting forager so...

MBUTI PAINTINGS. Paintings on Bark Cloth by Mbuti Artists of the Ituri Forest, DR Congo.  

Better known for their magnificent, polyphonic musicality, the lyrical, abstract compositions of Mbuti women – an ancient hunting forager so...


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