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Meni Mbugha brings pygmy style to DR Congo urban life

KINSHASA--Busy in a dim Kinshasa studio, Meni Mbugha chooses natural pigments in black and red to decorate clothes printed by silkscreen to bring the artwork of the pygmy forest people to the bustling city.

Mbugha, 33, creates dresses, skirts, tops, jackets and scarves bearing the floral patterns, stippled lines and curvy flourishes that the ethnic minority people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo traditionally carve into bark.

With his painstaking work on white linen, which is piled up in his studio, Mbugha has set out to highlight the beauty of the age-old art of the pygmies, who tend to be treated with contempt by those who consider themselves less primitive.

The artist uses original pygmy bark paintings of the flora and fauna they know so well to inspire his work, which begins with draft designs on a computer before he embarks on silkscreen prints for his collection Protos, which means “first” in Greek. He has a beige bag to carry samples of his craft.

Mbugha was born in the eastern French town of Nancy to a nutritionist father and a mother whose main tasks in life were caring for the house and raising four children. He was six when the family flew back to live in their native land, then called Zaire.

A gifted dancer, Mbugha upset his parents when he told them he wanted to study fashion design. “My father said that was a school for girls, that I would end up sitting under a tree stitching clothes for women,” the soft-spoken man said with a gentle smile.

In fact, the young man spent three years studying information technology, then transferred to learn about fine art. Secretively, he started courses at the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts (ISAM) in Kinshasa, where he said his “very ecologist” leanings led him to study “fashion and the protection of the forest.”

In 2007, he met a pygmy family from the Mbuti tribe living in the Epulu forest of northeastern DR Congo who had fled west to the capital to escape raids by militia forces in their troubled region.

New Inspiration

It was when these friends gave him a photo album with pictures of pygmy drawings on bark that Mbugha found his future line of work. “I told myself, why not print these themes on tissues?”

He was well aware that deforestation and mining activities pose a considerable threat to the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the little people, whose communities are scattered across several countries in the central African rainforest, the second green lung on the planet after the Amazon.

Despite social progress, pygmies are confronted with obstacles when they seek to benefit from health care and education and they encounter frequent discrimination. They are exploited by people who make them work for derisory sums of money or for payment in kind, which can often mean alcohol and cigarettes, spreading addiction.

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Meni Mbugha poses with a sewing machine in his studio in Kinshasa on April 2. (AFP)

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