Author: Lesli Robertson

In celebration of the fourth annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

The Masaka and Rakai Districts in Western Uganda are the key centers of bark cloth (lubugo) production and have been for centuries. We may see this cloth as traditional or historic, but bark cloth and the process of making it have continued to be practiced and preserved by a dedicated array of activists, community leaders, designers, and scholars. They believe in the importance of this material not only for the historic and cultural significance but the ability of it to be a model for sustainable textile practice and production.

Over the past 20 years, thanks to the efforts of passionate stakeholders, bark cloth has been transformed by countless designers within Uganda and across the world. Several exhibitions, design collections, and workshops have explored the imaginative potential of this material. Its appeal is in the unique quality of the cloth, as well as the knowledge that it is traceable, sustainable, and makes a positive contribution to both the environment and the economy.

Countless people are working with bark cloth in Uganda, but I wanted to highlight Fred Mutebi and his brother Stephen Kamya. Fred, a former Fulbright scholar, artist, and activist has committed his life to the traditional arts of Uganda. Several years ago, these two brothers set aside seven acres of the family’s land to develop BOTFA (Bukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Association) and MUTI (a Ugandan non-profit dedicated to the Mutuba tree). They focus on bark cloth production, training new bark cloth makers, growing seedlings of mutuba (bark cloth) trees, as well as other indigenous tree species and edible crops. Fred and Stephen understand that for bark cloth to continue from generation to generation, they need to look at the larger picture. This includes actively planting trees, engaging with the local government to bring awareness to the importance of this material, as well as getting bark cloth into the hands of more people in the tourism and design areas. It is and will continue to be a slow process, but Fred and Stephen are committed to their community and want to ensure that this tradition flourishes.

Bark cloth has a unique story that started centuries ago, and has since evolved despite political turmoil, cultural shifts, and environmental challenges. There is hope that it will find new audiences as more designers seek out materials that exist in our natural world that are truly sustainable, from tree to cloth.

Lesli Robertson is a textile consultant and artist. She is a recent Fulbright Specialist to Uganda where she is continuing her work with bark cloth and other textiles (www.mekekadesigns.com and www.leslirobertson.com). Lesli currently serves on the Textile Society of America Board.

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