Accepted paper:

Bark cloth in Uganda: from cultural symbol to sustainable art


Sarah Worden (National Museums Scotland)

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on the tradition of bark cloth production and use in Uganda, bringing together museum collections research and fieldwork with contemporary artists working with bark cloth in Kampala, to consider the changing fortunes of a material imbued with deep cultural significance and meaning.

Paper long abstract:

In 2005, UNESCO recognised Ugandan bark cloth as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. With the aim to revive this centuries old tradition this recognition was but one recent phase in the history of bark cloth's production and consumption in Uganda. Once a commodity with a fundamental role in social, political and ritual practice the use of bark cloth had declined in all but royal ceremonial contexts as consumption of imported cotton textiles increased during the late 19th century. From this period bark cloth began to arrive in National Museums Scotland collections, a natural and degradable material removed from its cultural context, use and associations, to be preserved rather as material evidence of local production processes. Today the evolution of bark cloth as an eco-friendly, renewable material of interest to Ugandan artists and designers has reinvigorated this cultural tradition introducing its potential to new global markets and fashioning new contexts of meaning. In this current environment, interest in the historic collections of bark cloth in the Museum has been revived. Are contemporary artists drawing on their material heritage to link the past with the future of bark cloth? Could the Museum's historic collections, located along that trajectory, become a relevant resource for inspiration? This paper will reflect on connections between historic and contemporary bark cloth traditions through collections research and fieldwork in Uganda to consider the changing fortunes of a material imbued with deep cultural significance and meaning.

panel P17
The endurance of the ephemeral