Date of this Version
Published in Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future, Los Angeles, California, September 10–14, 2014,
A textile is more than its physical nature; it has the ability to embody history, culture, and through its use, meaning. One of the most unique examples of this comes from the bark of the mutuba tree from western Uganda. This bark cloth originated centuries ago through the process of stripping an inner layer of bark from the tree and pounding it by hand into a supple cloth, tripling its size and developing a signature rust color. The tree is able to re-grow its bark for another harvest in one year, yielding 30-40 cloths during its lifespan. The making of bark cloth has not evolved greatly since its inception, each single piece of cloth is brought to life by hand, a laborious effort involving specialized wooden mallets and a great deal of skill. Although the process has not evolved, its use has. This paper will focus on the innovative use of bark cloth in studios, laboratories, and in the hands of artists, designers, and companies worldwide. Research into the history, culture, and contemporary uses of bark cloth within Uganda will paint a picture of a material that is alive in its cultural uses, while at the same time being part of an evolution into a material for new markets. Most recently, Bark Cloth Europe, a Ugandan-German company, received an innovation award for their pioneering use from LAUNCH, a collaboration between NIKE, NASA, USAID, and the US State Department. I will highlight this and other efforts to discover innovative uses for this textile in unusual places through the collaborative efforts of artists, scientists and engineers. The changing role of this culturally relevant and green material can serve as a model for evolution and innovation by understanding its journey from Uganda, Africa into the hands of designers and artists abroad.