Mbuti Pygmy Bark Cloth

  • Tribe: Mbuti (Pygmy)
  • Origin: DRC
  • Approx Age: 20th Century
  • Materials: Bark Cloth
  • Dimensions cm: 86 x 53
  • Ref. Number: 0868

An interesting piece of Mbuti Pygmy Bark Cloth from DRC. Before the colonial era bark cloth was the main item of both men and women,s clothing. It is the men who harvest the bark from the fig tree and then also go on to cut and pound the raw material. The pounding would be done using  mallet made of either ivory, bone or wood. Women then carry out the painting of the prepared cloth with rhythmical, free oscillating patterns.

Pygmy bark cloth

The Mbuti use painted bark-cloths, prepared by men and painted by women, as ritual dress for festivals, celebrations and rites of passage, including wedding and funeral ceremonies and puberty initiations. Both the painted bark-cloth that wraps an Mbuti infant at birth, and the bark-cloth tunnel through which young boys are “reborn” during puberty rites, are conceived, like the forest, as a womb (ndu).

Men prepare the bark-cloth from the inner bark of about six different species of trees. It is pounded with an ivory or wood mallet which may be incised with cross-hatch or linear grooves to produce a subtle textured surface. The process yields a supple fibrous canvas of various natural shades of white, tan or reddish brown. Mud immersions produce deep red and black grounds.

Women prepare the dyes and paints from a variety of roots, fruits and leaves which they collect from the forest. The paint is applied with twigs, twine or fingers. The elaborate process of preparing and painting a bark cloth is a social activity, and Mbuti learn how to make bark cloth from an early age.
The Mbuti bark-cloth paintings conceptualize their world; they are abstract expressions of the moods and features of the forest. The artists transform signs of the visible (the fractal geometry of trees) and the invisible (folded leaves, subtle modulations of insect sounds) into a unique visual language. The paintings are evidence of the Mbuti perception of the forest as the spiritual and symbolic core of their culture. The artists combine a variety of biomorphic motifs (e.g. butterflies, birds, leopard spots) with geometric patterns that give an impression of motion, sound and shape within the forest landscape: light filtered through trees, buzzing insects, ant trails, tangled vines. Cross-hatched squares, perhaps representing the texture of reptilian skin, are shorthand for turtles, crocodiles or snakes.