From the Archives: The Mbuti People and the Pongo

A group of Mbuti dance at edge of Ituri Forest, near Beni, Congo (Democratic Republic). Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. EEPA EENG 02397 Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

A group of Mbuti dance at edge of Ituri Forest, near Beni, Congo (Democratic Republic).
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970.
EEPA EENG 02397
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

This lively photograph by Eliot Elisofon from 1970, shows a group of Mbuti men and women in the Ituri rainforest, dancing and performing drums and wooden flutes. The energy is clear and the sense of rhythm palpable. For Mbuti peoples of Central Africa, music offers more than entertainment; it is central to rituals, collective cultural memory, and the logic of the land. Rhythm, progression, and movement play an integral part in Mbuti musical and visual arts.

Mbuti polyphonic musical arrangements are renowned worldwide, as are Mbuti painted barkcloths, or pongo. These cloths, made from the inner part of a ficus tree and pounded until dry and supple, are then inked by women. The artists are guided by their sense of rhythm, making each cloth unique. Characterized by alternations between repeating designs and abruptly interrupted linear patterns, some pongo can also be read like maps charting both order and disorder.

Pongo patterns may have been used to demarcate the rainforest home of an Mbuti community and its distinctive makeup of hunting grounds, clearings, waterways, and camps. While the visual strategies of an Mbuti barkcloth may differ from Western notion of a map, each pongo could nevertheless convey similar information: it mapped their sense of here, there, and elsewhere. The appealing aesthetics of Mbuti pongo are matched by their ability to impart deep cultural understanding and knowledge, and an intricate sense of rhythm and motion.

Earth Matters includes a wonderful example of one such barkcloth. Its staccato markings, cross-hatchings, and repeating chevron and diamonds create a sense of movement similar to that felt in Elisofonʼs photograph. Indeed, if you look closely at the image, it appears that the dancers may be wearing barkcloth, reinforcing the close connection between the two. Visit the exhibit yourself to take a closer look at the pongo, and consider the ways in which you inscribe personal and cultural meaning to place and representations of place, visually and auditorily. Do your mental maps include landmarks or cardinal directions? What about the GPS on your phone? For you, what gives rhythm and meaning to the part of the earth you inhabit?

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