Material Evolution

The versatility of Ugandan bark cloth

A new miracle fiber has been introduced to textile enthusiasts across the globe: It’s versatile; it doesn’t need to be woven. All you need is a sharp panga, reliable steaming equipment, a mallet … oh, and a tree.

In the latest art exhibit at the University of North Texas, Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth, the show features renowned international artists and designers who have created artistic works and everyday functional items from Ugandan bark cloth. The exhibit focuses on creating sustainable and environmentally friendly garments and other goods from a centuries-old process.

Bark cloth is a non-woven fabric that’s produced from the bark of Ficus Natalensis, or Mutuba, a rare fig tree species that’s indigenous to Uganda. Since the 13th century, bark cloth has been produced in the Bugunda Kingdom and used for commercial, ceremonial and ritual purposes by the Baganda—an ethnic group found in Central Uganda. The cloth ranges in texture from coarse and thick to fine and light. As an article of clothing, bark cloth can be worn as a sarong-like garment by both and women.

Historically, bark cloth was used as currency to pay for land rates and fines by peasant to the chiefs of their tribes. Bark cloth was also used for dowries, marriage ceremonies and last funeral rites.

Making bark cloth is traditionally passed on from father to son. The process involves stripping the tree trunk of it bark by slicing segments of the bark with a sharp panga. Once the bark has been stripped, it’s steamed, spread out on big logs and beaten with mallets. Like a rolling pin effect, the bark widens, lengthens and thins.
 

To keep the tree producing more bark, layers of fresh  banana leaves are wrapped around the tree and with careful tending a single healthy tree can easily produce up to 436 yards in a period of forty years.

Lesli Robertson, the exhibit’s curator and a lecturer in the fibers program at the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design, has traveled to Uganda several times in the last few years to study the process of making bark cloth. Robertson has also organized various community projects to engage schoolchildren in Uganda and the United States in an exchange of artistic ideas.  “For hundreds of years, bark cloth has been a part of the Buganda Kingdom of Uganda, and now this unique material is finding a place in contemporary art and design, both in Uganda and abroad,” she said.

As shown by the exhibit, the uses for bark cloth are endless. On display are various examples include a bark cloth dress used in contemporary Ugandan wedding ceremonies, as well as other articles of clothing like a jacket, and men’s shoes. Non-garment samples on display include numerous wall hangings and a bark cloth-wrapped steering wheel. In addition, a mural created by Ugandan and American schoolchildren is on display.

Among the designers and artists whose work will be on display include Emily Brewer, a British designer, who has been working with bark cloth for nearly four years to create sustainable interior textile objects via her company, Decode Designs. Oliver Heintz and his wife and business partner formed, BARKCLOTH® Europe with workshops in Uganda and Germany and are testing various bleaching, dyeing, gilding, and rubberizing techniques and they affect the cloth. Shoe designer Markus Werner creates shoes that combine ecological with unique design elements.

Although bark cloth is capturing the attention of new designers who are interested in sustainable and ecological-friendly material, Ugandan bark cloth was earlier named as part of the world’s collective heritage and recognized in 2005 by UNESCO, which declared the “art of bark cloth making in Uganda a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”


Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth will run through March 26th at the UNT Art Gallery in the UNT Art Building. For more information, please visit www.art.unt.edu/gallery. To learn more about the community projects organized by Lesli Robertson, please visit her blog www.barkcloth.blogspot.com/

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