Ugandan bark cloth making a revival in 21st century clothing.

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Anthropologists say it is the oldest textile known to mankind, and now local designers in Uganda are giving cloth made out of bark a new lease of life.

The newest traveling exhibition from ExhibitsUSA eusa.org:
Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth Preview

Produced for more than three centuries, Ugandan bark cloth has evolved from its traditional ritual and everyday uses to become an eco-friendly, renewable material for contemporary fine art and design. In 2005, UNESCO recognized bark cloth as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This designation is intended to raise awareness of such traditions and encourage their communities to protect them and the local people who sustain such cultural practices.

Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth brings together a diverse international group of artists and designers to showcase its historical applications and innovative adaptations. The exhibition opens with a wall-projected video showing
the fascinating transformation of raw bark strips from the mutuba tree to large sheets of non-woven fabric three or four times the original size. The cloth continues to be made by hand in a labor-intensive process that involves beating it with a wooden mallet, folding, stretching, and then beating it again.

The exhibition traces these developments through 22 examples of art and design. Now, as in the past, Ugandan bark cloth fulfills ceremonial purposes ranging from coronation garments for kings to burial shrouds to the traditional garment for wedding celebrations seen in the exhibition. Gloria WavaMunno, on the other hand, has taken bark cloth to the fashion runway, represented here with a tailored, double-breasted jacket.

Works by university-trained Ugandan artists Ivan Yakuze, Sarah Nakisanze, and Sara Katebalirwe show the adaptation of bark cloth to a fine art format. Using it as their canvas, they add collage, mixed media, and screen printing elements to create compositions with culturally significant images.

In the last decade, European designers have turned to Ugandan bark cloth as a renewable “green” material from which they have made products ranging from furniture to a concept steering wheel for the Mercedes Benz. Leading the way are Oliver Heintz and Mary Barongo Heintz who formed the company BARK CLOTH® Europe, based in Uganda and Germany. Samples of BarkTex® on display in the exhibition demonstrate their experimentation with dyeing, gilding, rubberizing and bleaching techniques.

Video interviews with selected artists and designers will offer insights into the history, culture, and material properties of bark cloth. Visitors to the exhibition will also have the opportunity to experience the unique physical character of this material through beating bark cloth with mallets.

Like many traditional crafts, Ugandan bark cloth has been reinvented for contemporary life. As the exhibition demonstrates, bark cloth offers an avenue of economic benefit to Ugandans through its earth-friendly, sustainable properties and its adaptability for a variety of art and design formats, which in turn promised to support its continued existence.

Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth was organized and first presented at the University of North Texas Art Gallery, Denton, in spring 2011. Fiber artist Lesli Robertson curated the exhibition. Robertson has been conducting summer research projects on bark cloth in Uganda for several years.

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