Mbuti men routinely prepare pieces of cloth out of bark, either for local use or for sale to tourists, and the women decorate them with painted designs, some of which are quite interesting. Cathryn M. Cootner, herself a long-time collector of bark cloths and the former curator of textiles at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, has written a magazine article that carefully analyzes and appraises the artistic values of 14 different bark cloth paintings.

She begins by introducing Mbuti culture and society for readers who are not familiar with them. She describes the Mbuti territories in the Ituri Forest of the D.R. Congo, where people hunt game and gather such foods as nuts, fruits, berries, honey, snails, and larvae. The people move their camps in the forest to be near the places where they are currently hunting and gathering. She indicates that, while they have exchange relationships with neighboring farming peoples, they are not necessarily dependent on them for their needs.

The Mbuti, she points out, still view the forest as sacred—they see it as “god, parent, haven, provider and protector” (p.104). Part of the reason they make drawings on their bark cloths is to pay homage to their deity. Cootner says the Mbuti socialize with one another quite vivaciously while they are painting their bark cloths.

The men and boys will cut a section of the main trunk from a fig tree (Ficus sp.) and prepare the cloth from the inner bark by first pounding, then soaking it for 24 hours. The material is then squeezed and twisted to remove any residual sap, and further beaten with a tusk or mallet. After being dried out, it has become a piece of cloth. The resulting irregularly-shaped pieces of cloth vary widely in size, thickness, and texture. They are used for clothing, blankets, and swaddling for babies. The people hold up their clothing with belts that they fabricate from braided vines.

The Mbuti women use various berries to make paints that they apply to the pieces of cloth, which are naturally colored white, orange, or fawn. They mix fruit juices with charcoal and use sap from a gardenia as an affixing agent. Sometimes they paint only one face of a cloth, sometimes both. Broader areas of color are applied with a finger, while lines are painted with a twig or stem. The author has studied more than 300 different bark cloths over the years, and more than a quarter were painted primarily with shades of black.

The bark cloth drawings she depicts in her article are quite complex and inventive. Since most are abstract in nature, Cootner has to tease out the symbolisms and impressions intended by the artists. For instance, cloth number 10 shows patches of parallel lines, each patch oriented in a different direction. They look like sections of six to eight line musical staffs, with curlicues, cross lines, and other figures that enhance the musical impression. Cootner concludes her analysis of illustration 10 by writing, “this multilayered and very complex piece is the result of prescience and fine judgment. There are no miscues, every line and every adornment, however apparently adventitious, has its rightful place” (p.108-109).

Not all of the bark cloths she pictures are highly abstract. Number six is clearly a stylized representation of a tree in a forest. But the artist, rather than the tree, dominates the drawing. The concentric forms of the leaves and the control and balance of the composition leave the viewer with an appreciation for artistic expression more than for a representation of a natural forest.

Cootner analyzes bark cloths that were painted primarily between the late 1980s and 1998. She explains that cotton cloth goods began replacing the traditional bark clothing after World War II, when outside supplies could enter the Ituri forest fairly easily. But the disruptions of wars and violence since then severed those easy supply lines, and the cotton clothing began to disintegrate. By the 1980s, the Mbuti were again fabricating and painting their traditional bark cloths.

Cootner’s evaluations parallel the opinions expressed in Christie McDonald’s 2005 book on Anne Eisner, which also contains information on Mbuti bark cloths. Cootner’s careful analyses of the fourteen illustrations included in the article are matched by her obvious affection for the intriguing drawings by the Mbuti women.

Cootner, Cathryn M. 2007. “Lumina et Umbra: Magic in the Forest: Mbuti Pygmy Bark Cloths.” Hali 153: 102-111