- In Word and Image: Remembering Anne Eisner’s Adventures in Africa
This is an outstanding book. Most of the essays are revised versions of papers first presented in the course of a special workshop held at Harvard University in 2002 to examine the art and life of Anne Eisner (1911–1967), the white American woman artist who lived in the Ituri rainforest of the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the 1940s and 1950s.
Anne Eisner’s African adventures began in 1945. While working as a freelance artist in New York City, she fell in love with Harvard-trained anthropologist Patrick Putnam and, in 1946, accompanied him back to the Ituri forest where he had lived since the late 1920s, studying the Mbuti. The latter, along with the Aka, Efe, Twa, and related groups, are pejoratively called “Pygmies” because they look much smaller than the average person. Anne married Patrick in 1948, despite the fact that he already had African wives. She quickly adjusted to the new environment, assisting him in running a ranch he had established at Epulu on the edge of the Ituri rainforest. This ranch later became known as Camp Putnam. She identified so closely with the Mbuti that they invited her to join a network of foster mothers taking care of three orphaned babies. All told, Anne spent about nine years at Camp Putnam (1946–1954–1957–1958) painting genre scenes, compiling ethnographic notes, collecting African art and artifacts, as well as transcribing Mbuti folktales. The camp began to disintegrate when Patrick became physically and mentally ill. He died in 1953. Anne left for the United States in 1954, though she came back three years later, spending only one year before leaving for good after a bicycle accident in which she broke her hips. [End Page 138]
Well-documented, full of fresh perspectives and distinguished by high-quality scholarship, the essays in Images of the Congo not only focus on different aspects of Anne Eisner’s activities at Camp Putnam, but also attempt to fill critical gaps in the literature on the Mbuti. Until recently, this literature was dominated by the publications of the anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924–1994) whose popular book The Forest People (1961) portrayed them as hunters/gatherers living in harmony with nature. By comparing and contrasting the Mbuti lifestyle with those of their neighbors (Bantu villagers/farmers), Turnbull drew attention to the “unbridgeable gulf” between them. Some of the essays in Images of the Congo challenge this binary opposition of nomadic hunter/sedentary farmer. They also disclose that Turnbull based a good part of his interpretation of Mbuti worldview on Anne Eisner’s field notes but, surprisingly, failed to acknowledge his debt to her in The Forest People. In addition, they examine how the trio (Eisner, Putnam, and Turnbull) collected Mbuti art and artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and how these materials were manipulated to romanticize the image of the so-called “Pygmy” in the American imagination.
There are seven essays in the book. The editor, Christie McDonald, contributes two excellent essays (11–31; 41–51) that provide a detailed biography of Anne Eisner, analyzing her art works and relating them to the experimental tendencies (such as Abstraction, Primitivism, and Expressionism, etc.) in modern art and to her personal experience in the Ituri forest. After noting Turnbull’s unacknowledged use of Eisner’s field data in his publications, McDonald proceeds to highlight the differences in their interpretations of Mbuti worldview and culture. Whereas Eisner’s paintings and written observations portray the Mbuti as involved in a complex symbiotic relationship with their neighbors (most especially the Bira villagers who were farmers), Turnbull, on the other hand, identifies the Mbuti as peaceful, freedom-loving hunters, living in harmony with nature and therefore better off without the sedentary farmers. Nonetheless, McDonald traces their disagreement to, among other things, fundamental differences in their professional training and...