By Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers
Although they cover only a small fraction of the earth’s surface, rainforests host more than half of all the world’s animals and plants. They have been given many poetic names, including “the jewels of the earth” on account of their value and beauty, “the lungs of the earth” due to their crucial role in oxygen turnover, and “the world’s largest pharmacy,” because so many natural medicines have been discovered in them. And all of them are disappearing due to deforestation and climate change.
But there is more to this familiar story. On the second floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in gallery 255, an exhibition of barkcloth paintings illuminates an often overlooked aspect of rainforests and their conservation: There are people living in rainforests, and there have been for thousands of years.
“In Dialogue with the Forest: Barkcloth Paintings from Congo” showcases the work of the Mbuti people, commonly known as Pygmies, a term based on stature and considered by some as both colonial and derogatory. About 30,000 to 40,000 Mbuti people live in the Ituri rainforest, roughly the size of West Virginia and located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are primarily hunter-gatherers. Over the course of a year, families move their camps in the forest to be near the places where they hunt game, or gather such foods as nuts, fruits, berries, mushrooms, snails, termites, larvae, and honey.
Mbuti men prepare barkcloth by pounding the inner bark of several species of trees, producing a subtly textured surface. Women make dyes from a variety of roots, fruits, and leaves, and apply the paint on the barkcloth with twigs or fingers. The Mbuti identify closely with the forest, which they view as sacred. Not surprisingly, seemingly abstract designs in their paintings refer to their forested environment. Graphic elements may be interpreted as insects, birds, animals and animal tracks, as well as trees, leaves, and maybe even light seeping through the branches or sounds produced by animals, plants, and the natural elements.
The Ituri rainforest harbors large populations of forest elephants and is home to one of Africa’s most elusive mammals, the okapi. Both the forest elephant and okapi are endangered. Conservation groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, work hard to combat threats to Congo’s bio-diversity by pushing for national legislation and establishing protected areas.
While these conservation efforts are necessary and laudable, it is critical to ask, “Conservation, for whom?” As the rainforest provides the Mbuti with the basis for their material, cultural, and spiritual life, its destruction threatens their very existence. Yet the creation of parks and reserves often leads to restricted access for the Mbuti people to their traditional lands and essential resources. On this Earth Day, let’s remember the Ituri rainforest’s inhabitants while enjoying their artistic genius.
Jan-Lodwijk Grootaers is a curator of African Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and head of the Department of Arts of Africa and the Americas.
Top image: A detail of a barkcloth painting from the exhibition “In Dialogue with the Forest: Barkcloth Paintings from Congo.”