Deep within the Ituri Rainforest of the Northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire lies the habitat of the Mbuti people, one of the last hunter-gatherer cultures in the world. This distinctive nomadic society thrives solely off the rich, natural environment of their surroundings. The Mbuti are bamiki bandura, “children of the forest.” Their values are deeply rooted in spiritual and symbolic tradition expressed through song and dance. The barkcloths are produced as ritual dress for festivals, celebrations and rites of passage, including wedding and funeral ceremonies.
The elaborate art of the barkcloth is a social activity, and Mbuti learn how to make barkcloth from an early age. The barkcloth canvas is obtained by the men, sourced from the inner bark of about six different species of trees. It is pounded with an ivory or wood mallet to produce a subtle textured and supple fibrous canvas composed of various natural shades of white, tan or reddish brown. The 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 Mbuti barkcloth paintings reflect their world. They are abstract expressions of the forest from the geometric intricacies of the trees to the creatures that inhabit it. The artisans transform signs of the visible and the invisible into a unique visual language that reflects the spiritual and symbolic core of their culture. The artists combine a variety of motifs from 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.