Uganda’s bark cloth is gradually gaining international approval.
Last month, the Ugandan embassy in Washington, DC and the African Textile Museum in Atlanta, Georgia recently held an event to showcase Uganda’s bark cloth as part of the commemoration of Black History Month.
The event, dubbed Bark Cloth to the Roots, which took place at the Museum on February 26, put a spotlight on Uganda’s bark cloth as the oldest known African textile.
The exhibition was part of the commemorations for February-Black History Month, which is marked to honour African Americans and raise awareness of Black history.
Bark cloth, a fabric historically used by the Buganda in central Uganda to wrap their dead before burial, is making a comeback in the form of trendy crafts, clothing and household good.
Bark cloth – also called back cloth – is exported to Germany, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Canada where significant populations of Ugandans live in the Diaspora. There is also huge demand from neighbouring Kenya. Kenyan traders blend the cloth and export the products to Europe and the U.S.
In 2005, Unesco declared the Ugandan bark cloth a “masterpiece of oral and intangible cultural heritage”, and in 2008 it was added to the World Heritage List.
At the launch of the exhibition, proprietor of the museum Ahneva Hilson, paid tribute to Africa as the birthplace of fashion.
“The African Textile Museum was established in 2020 to curate and preserve African textile history. Its purpose is to share the work of present-day African artisans, scholars and creative designers not only in moving the fashion industry forward but also in playing a key role in conservation and sustainability programmes,” she said.
Ms. Ahneva Hilson, the proprietor of the museum, recognized Uganda as the first African country to donate heritage specifically for the museum which is a major step in the direction of bridging the gap and creating an enabling environment of doing business in Africa.
Hilson said Uganda was the first African country to commission and donate special heritage items specifically for the museum.
“Culture is often the key that opens the door to doing business,” she said. “There has been a yawning gap between the cultures of the Africans and Americans of African descent, despite the deep cultural heritage that they share. Recognising this important part of our joint heritage is a major step in the direction of bridging the gap and creating an enabling environment of doing business in Africa.”
The Ugandan embassy commissioned the two bark cloth installations donated to the museum by London-based fashion designer Jose Hendo.
Hendo is a Ugandan-born British national who has been using bark cloth in renewable and recyclable materials for over 20 years. In addition, the museum received a donation two extra-large pairs of polished Ankole cowhorn.
In an interview with the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation held on the sidelines of the event, Uganda’s ambassador to the US Mull Katende said: “Bark cloth production is a highly skilled craft passed down through many generations.”
“The process of making barkcloth existed before weaving was invented and has been passed down from generation to generation for over 700 years. This makes it one of the oldest natural textiles in history and one whose stamp of ownership we must clearly express,” Katende added.
Speaking virtually from London, Hendo informed the guests that due to the growing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry, there is an increasing demand for natural materials or fibres as designers embrace sustainable raw materials and promote traditional craftsmanship.
The backcloth is identified with the Baganda of southern Uganda, who i the country’s largest ethnic group. Since ancient times they’ve been making a venerated fabric by pounding the inner bark of the mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis).
This laborious process produces a stunning cognac-brown material held in such high spiritual regard that seven sheets of it are wrapped around a deceased Baganda’s body before burial. It is believed that this material alone has the power to transport the soul to the land of Baganda’s ancestors.
Bark cloth’s association with death and the afterlife explains why it’s primarily worn day to day by Baganda witches and spiritual mediums, who consider it a magnet for ghosts. Some mediums will even make special headbands with pieces of barkcloth covering their eyes. These arboreal veils work as a window into the world of the dead.
However, it is also worn during important occasions to exhibit pride of Kiganda culture.
Barkcloth is made from the Mutuba (Ficus natalensis) tree. The Mutuba tree is one of the easiest trees to plant and almost doesn’t need special care for it to thrive. Families simply planted it in the banana plantation and it provided clothing for generations.
The process of manufacturing Barkcloth involves removing bark from the Mutuba tree (after which the tree would be wrapped in banana leaves for a few weeks to regenerate), hitting it with different mallets until it turned into a soft tissue, which was then washed, sometimes boiled, and then dried in direct sunlight for weeks. The boiled one was the premium version.
Members of the Ngonge (otter) clan are the official bark cloth makers for the Kabaka and the royal family as it was invented by them. bark cloth is worn by both women and men though women used a sash to tie it around. It was also used as bedding material, mosquito net, and for cultural and spiritual functions. At burials even today, dead bodies are wrapped in bark cloth while at the coronation, the Kabaka wears a ton of it.
In her concept note for the installation, Hendo says: “…Bark cloth was traditionally popular for clothing, but today, barkcloth is rather used for craft products such as hats, book covers, along with paintings and handbags. It is also used for some traditional ceremonies and funerals.”
“Barkcloth is one of Africa’s surviving cultural materials that has been kept alive within some tribes in Uganda, despite the fact that some of Africa’s authentic materials, cultures, and other regalia have been lost,” Hendo adds.
According to Hendo, the woman’s ensemble is inspired by how women used to wear bark cloth, wrapped around the body and tied around the waistline. It was all very simple, practical and most importantly biodegradable and so is this woman’s ensemble.
The man’s ensemble is a four-piece also inspired by how they used to wear bark cloth in the past and also how the men dress for traditional occasions today. A modern take on the Kanzu (tunic), here it is finished it off with bark cloth collar, with bark cloth across the body, as the men wore bark cloth in the past tied over one shoulder. Included is an upcycled blazer to complete the look. The cape is shield like too as in the Coat of Arms.
The exhibit of the bark cloth and the unique features of the Ankole Cow horn as sources of sustainable, original materials for the film and fashion industry is a great opportunity. The materials will be introduced to costume designers and the fashion industry alike to promote their use, according to Hendo.
The Ankole long-horn cow whose horns can measure up to 8 feet in length also the oldest indigenous cattle breed found in the western part of central Uganda cattle corridor is also one of Uganda’s other items on the World Heritage List.