June 2, 2014

Ugandan Bark Cloth included at the National Gallery of Art in China exhibition on intangible cultural heritages!

Third International Photography Biennial in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, exhibition
"The Intangible Cultural Heritage"

I was asked by Diana Kingsbury of Chinese Photography Magazine to submit photographs of Ugandan Bark Cloth making for this exhibition on cultural heritages. I was very excited to share my images of a co-op of bark cloth makers from the Rakai District that I shot in 2008. As a disclaimer, I was unable to supply the names of the specific makers, unfortunately my notes were of no use.

Here is the translated text for those interested:
Barkcloth making is an ancient craft practiced by the Baganda people in southern Uganda. Craftsmen of the Ngonge clan, headed by a hereditary chief craftsman, traditionally made bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community, employing a prehistoric technique that predates the invention of weaving. The inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested during the wet season and, through a long and strenuous process, beaten with wooden mallets to a soft and fine texture of even terracotta colour. Craftsmen work in an open shed to protect the bark from drying out too quickly. Traditionally, barkcloth is used at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings; it also served very functional purposes, including curtains, mosquito screens, bedding and storage. In recent decades, this cloth has been used by artists and designers in Uganda and abroad for high fashion, fine art, and inventively designed products.

Image captions:
All photos courtesy of Lesli Robertson
1.The bark cloth co-op, Bakomazi Agali Awamu Twesitule, of Mananma, Rakai District, Uganda, 2008
A co-op member stripping the bark from the mutuba tree. This process does not kill the tree, with proper care the bark can be harvested once a year for 30-35 years.
2.The bark cloth co-op, Bakomazi Agali Awamu Twesitule, of Mananma, Rakai District, Uganda, 2008
A co-op member using a grooved wooden mallet to pound the bark into cloth. This process takes from 2 - 4 hours and will result in the barkcloth reaching over 4 times it original width.
3.The bark cloth co-op, Bakomazi Agali Awamu Twesitule, of Mananma, Rakai District, Uganda, 2008
The co-op members discussing the cloth that was just finished. To complete the process, the barkcloth is stretched on the ground and held in place by large stones. The sun dries the cloth and enriches its natural rust color.
4.The bark cloth co-op, Bakomazi Agali Awamu Twesitule, of Mananma, Rakai District, Uganda, 2008
This finished piece of bark cloth is a beautiful example of the quality that can be achieved through the process. What began as bark is now a supple cloth.

March 17, 2014

Small Shoes, Big Idea.

I recently posted on an artist, Bobby Britnell, and her interest and work with Ugandan bark cloth. I gave you all a hint as to an upcoming project of hers with collaborator, Janet Middelton, a shoe designer in the UK with Star Child Shoes.

These two amazing artists are rethinking how to support their efforts to promote Ugandan bark cloth and the communities it can change - through a project called Barkcloth to Artcloth. Check out the link.

"The exquisitely stitched and beautifully embellished barkcloth contributions, from well over 100 people, and all made up by Janet Middleton into fabulous baby shoes, fits perfectly with this strap line, ONE TINY STEP TO A BRIGHTER FUTURE . This is because they have all been made in support of 'Hands up for Uganda' and building awareness of this charity in such a creative way, will lead to brighter futures for so many children and all community members of Kisaabwa." Bobby Britnell.

Each pair of shoes is made from a piece of barkcloth that has been transformed by artists from all over the world. They will be exhibited at the following venues in England with more to follow!

Creative Stitches, NEC Birmingham          20th to 23rd March 2014   
Creative Stitches, EXCEL London            3rd to 5th April 2014

Since I began researching barkcloth in 2005, I was always asked if I ever used it in my artwork, and the answer was always no. I think that from the first time I spied it in Wakiso in a small stall, I never felt like a participant, but an observer. Even after learning about the incredible opportunities to manipulate the surface, transform the material into 2 and 3 dimensional objects, I did not incorporate it into my studio practice. Until....
Bobby asked that I and a fellow artist, Amie Adelman, participate in Barkcloth to Artcloth, and I have fallen in love with the material in a new way. It was wonderful to hold the material and think about how I wanted to leave my mark on it. I don't foresee a new body of work as of yet, but it was great to find a new way to relate to the material. Here are images of my cloth and Jane Middleton made shoes!