Images of Congo: The Art and Ethnography of Anne Eisner Putnam, 1946-1958 Exhibition Opens October 2

Beauty Salon (1956), watercolor on newsprint, Anne Eisner.

September 28, 2006 - In 1946, painter Anne Eisner moved from New York to the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where she would spend the next nine years, much of it in contact with the Mbuti Pygmies. Eisner integrated herself into their world, painting the Pygmies, transcribing their legends, keeping ethnographic notes, and caring for three orphaned Pygmy infants. A new exhibition, Images of Congo: The Art and Ethnography of Anne Eisner Putnam, 1946-1958, opening October 2 at Houghton Library, explores Eisner’s artwork and life among the Pygmies through her letters, photographs, and art.

The exhibition is curated by Christie McDonald, Harvard University’s Smith Professor of French Language and Literature, who readily states that this was a project outside her field that she fell into through a family connection to Eisner’s papers, archived at Houghton. Fascinated by the artist’s work and history, and by the unique perspective Eisner took of the Pygmies, McDonald invited colleagues from Harvard, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum for African Art  in New York, and Boston University to join her in an examination of Eisner’s work. The result was a 2005 book, also titled Images of Congo, upon which this autumn’s exhibit is based. The book’s seven contributors also will come together October 11 for a symposium to discuss Eisner’s art and how her views diverged both artistically and anthropologically from mid-20th century stereotypes.

In addition to McDonald, participants include Suzanne Preston Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of African and African American Studies, Harvard University; Christraud M. Geary, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; F. Abiola Irele, Visiting Professor of African and African-American Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University;  Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Museum for African Art, New York; Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and a member of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, Harvard University; and Rosanna Warren, Emma MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, University Professor, and Professor of English and Modern Foreign Languages, Boston University.

Eisner’s journey began when she followed the maverick anthropologist Patrick Putnam, Harvard Class of ’25, to Camp Putnam, which he had founded on the Epulu River. Eisner would later marry Putnam, and their difficult marriage would also affect her work: Putnam would fall ill and destroy much of what he had built before dying in 1953, leaving Eisner to salvage the camp. "Without her, the place would not have continued," says McDonald.

Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, and Christie McDonald, Harvard University's Smith Professor of French Language and Literature with Anne Eisner's oil painting The Women (1956).

The camp functioned as a research station, lodge, and medical dispensary and it was here that tourists, game hunters, and art collectors came to see both the Pygmies and the forest. Located there, at the edge of the Ituri rainforest, was a steady mingling of Westerners, African villagers, and hunter-gatherer Pygmies.
This world took hold of Eisner, and Africa would dominate her work from 1947 on, her style evolving under its influence. Her art focuses on images of daily African life and the exhibit speaks to this with such pieces as a sketch of a woman from her Madami series (1950), Picking Palm Nuts (1947), and Beauty Salon (1956), which portrays a woman arranging another’s hair.  Photographs of Camp Putnam also help explain the relationship between Eisner’s art and the life she was living, says Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts at Houghton Library, who was instrumental in acquiring Eisner’s papers and worked with McDonald to manage the logistics of the upcoming exhibition.

The items in the exhibition reflect Eisner’s deep involvement with the Pygmies and people of the area, with whom, according to McDonald, Eisner was one of few white people, especially women, to fully engage. She learned KiNgwanna (a dialect of Swahili), often living for extended periods in Pygmy hunting camps, and helped raise three orphaned infants as part of a larger community of "mothers."

The exhibit also portrays Eisner’s strong personal vision in relationship to mid-20th century standard commercial clichés about Africans.  "One of the points we’re trying to make in the exhibition is the divergence from stereotypes  at Camp Putnam," says McDonald. "We also document the change from the scientific interest of physical anthropology to an aesthetic and cultural view."
"You could say that there was a battleground for the narrative about the Pygmies, about Africans more broadly, and actually about Anne Eisner as a woman," says McDonald. In contrast to Eisner were anthropologists like Colin Turnbull, who spent time among the Pygmies with Eisner’s help, yet whose popular book The Forest People presented "inclusions and exclusions rather than crossovers and intersections among the cultures of the area," explains McDonald.

Also interesting is that Eisner took it upon herself to make ethnographic notes on Pygmy daily life and to record more than 200 of their legends. Her training as a painter had taught her to observe details closely.   At a time when anthropologists were looking solely for objective data, she inserted herself into her observations. Her book Madami, about her years living with the Pygmies, is written in a first-person narrative. "This view didn’t really become part of ethnology until the 1980s, as Chris Geary makes clear in Images of Congo," says McDonald. "Eisner did this long before other people were doing it."

"Part of what makes Anne interesting is that she was creating a role in this area of Africa that was without precedent. Her view was very different," says McDonald. "But she wasn’t really written into history."

The "Images of Congo" exhibition runs October 2–December 22, 2006 in the Edison and Newman Room, Houghton Library. Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 9 am-5 pm; Tuesday 9 am–8 pm, Saturday 9 am–1 pm. For details, call Leslie Morris at 617-495-2449.

The related symposium is scheduled for Wednesday, October 11, from 4-6 pm, also in the Edison and Newman Room, Houghton Library. Seating is limited. Please RSVP by October 10 to 617-495-2449. For more information, see Exhibitions and Events.

Page Last Reviewed: May 12, 2009