The paintings by Anne Eisner at Epulu as well as the bark-cloth paintings of the local Mbuti provide insights into the Ituri Forest world of the Congo Pygmies after World War II. A new art book, Images of Congo: Anne Eisner’s Art and Ethnography, 1946-1958, explores the human relationships and artistic achievements in the village of Epulu, in northeastern Congo, where Colin Turnbull also did his famous ethnographic investigation of the Mbuti. The most significant aspect of the book is that it provides valuable insights into the artistic works of both the Mbuti and Eisner.
Anne Eisner, a young American painter, met Patrick Putnam, a charismatic Harvard-trained anthropology student, in New York at the end of World War II and she moved with him in 1946 to the village he had established in the Belgian Congo. There she discovered that he already had some African wives, but she married him anyway. Eisner continued to paint in both the Mbuti village and among the non-Mbuti Africans who lived near Putnam’s home, called at first Camp Putnam and then Epulu, after the river that flows past the settlement.
Christie McDonald, author of a recent journal article that examined the relationship between Eisner and the young anthropologist Colin Turnbull, is the editor of this new volume. Her earlier journal article is reprinted as the third chapter in the book with only a few paragraphs omitted and slight editorial changes. The first chapter in the book, also by McDonald, provides an overview of Eisner’s life, her art, and her relationships with Patrick Putnam, Colin Turnbull, and the Africans who lived at Camp Putnam from 1946 to 1954 while she was there.
Enid Schildkrout’s chapter “Modernism and Ethnology in the Ituri: Anne Eisner, Colin Turnbull, and the Mbuti” explains how the Mbuti and other forest peoples made cloth out of bark from various trees through a process of softening and pounding. The bark-cloth was used for clothing by men and women and for other purposes such as baby carriers and mats. It was commonly decorated with black and red vegetable paints. Schildkrout discusses whether or not the paintings represented original Mbuti art forms, or perhaps contained ideas that were partially transplanted from other African societies, from Europeans, or from other visitors.
A later essay in the book, Suzanne Preston Blier’s “Mapping the Ituri: Mbuti Bark-Cloth Paintings and the Canvases of Anne Eisner” examines the bark-cloth paintings from different perspectives. She provides a detailed discussion of the possible meanings suggested by the bark paintings, several of which are shown in the book in black and white.
A striking bark-cloth Mbuti painting that hung on the living-room wall of Camp Putnam (Fig. 29, p.109) is analyzed in detail. One of the vertical strips of the painting may represent a path through the Ituri Forest that was occupied by the traditional endu, the huts of the Mbuti. It depicts some of the architectural details of the huts. Another strip further to the right on the work has various elements that suggest spider webs, iguanas, and, at the center, leopards—clearly a representation of the forest that is at the center of the painting and of Mbuti life.
The author argues that the bark-cloth paintings may have been a form of ethnographic mapping by the Mbuti. She also discusses the possibility that the abstract painting style and the interests of Eisner may have influenced the Mbuti painters. She suggests that the excellent condition of the bark-cloths in Western collections may indicate that they were created for sale rather than for personal use. In essence, Eisner’s preference for abstract art may have influenced the Mbuti artists to produce similarly abstract paintings rather than the more representational paintings produced in other African villages that sell their works to outsiders.
Patrick Putnam’s development in the 1930s of a home, dispensary, and modest guest facility for tourists and researchers fostered the sale to outsiders of trade goods such as the bark-cloth paintings. Blier questions, however, if the bark-cloth paintings now housed in Western collections were entirely Mbuti productions, or if perhaps some of them may have been made by other peoples in the Ituri forest area.
The seventh essay in the book, Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s “Beyond the Images: Hearing Anne Eisner Putnam’s African World” describes how the Mbuti made music by holding the ends of hunting bows between their toes, with the other ends held in their mouths. The bow string was plucked or tapped in various way to produce harmonic sounds. Three of Eisner’s abstract paintings of musicians playing with the musical bow are included in the plates.
As Shelemay writes, “an entire melody of harmonics can also be rendered audible above the low fundamental tone when one end of the bow is held in the player’s mouth, which acts as a resonator” (p.138). She speculates on the music that Eisner must have heard as she observed, interacted with, and painted the Mbuti and the other Africans. She also discusses possible associations between some of the Mbuti songs that Turnbull recorded, which are still available on CD, and some of the Mbuti myths.
Other essays in the book examine Anne Eisner’s paintings in detail and the book that she wrote through a ghost writer—who unfortunately changed the essence of her work. The 32 color plates in Images of the Congo and the numerous black and white illustrations provide a flavor for the work of Eisner, the paintings of the Mbuti, and the complex scenes of Camp Putnam in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
McDonald, Christie. Images of Congo: Anne Eisner’s Art and Ethnography, 1946-1958. Milan: 5 continents, 2005.