Olubugo Reloaded: The push towards a new awareness
I should start this article by stating that I am partial to bark cloth. After first seeing it created in 2006, I have been on a quest to learn more about the role it plays in contemporary Ugandan culture and art.
Textile based media has always played a role in cultures throughout the globe, and each culture has specific materials, techniques and uses for their textiles. These textiles not only remain as cultural icons, but also evolve in the hands of the contemporary artists, becoming materials that have conceptual weight and associations. Bark cloth is an exceptional example of this.
Written by Lesli Robertson
In recent years, a strong focus on this material and the artists and designers who are engaged with it has been circulating throughout the globe. Bark cloth has found many roles in contemporary art and design not only in Uganda, but also in Europe, Japan, England, and the United States. Most importantly, though, this material has continued to develop as a defining medium for expression among the contemporary artists of Uganda.
I was excited to hear about the latest exhibition focusing on bark cloth that happened on February 19th in Kampala at FAS FAS Gallery. The exhibition of 10 Kampala based artists involved in the use of bark cloth seemed to join together a group of artists with a varied range of experience with the media.
The artists included: Xenson, Maria Naita, Henry Mzili, Donald Wasswa, Kigozi David, Sanaa Gateja, Sheila Black, Stella Atal, Yakuze Ivan, and Ronex. Each artist brought their individual relationship with the media to their work, creating a range of two and three-dimensional explorations that ranged from the functional to the conceptual, to the wearable.
The relevance of bark cloth
I have spent some time looking at images of the exhibition, which unfortunately, I have to view through the lens of the camera. As I surveyed works that ranged from functional mirrors, to stitched wall pieces, to obsessively manipulated bark cloth, I had more questions about the relevance of these bark cloth artworks to Uganda than I had responses to the works.
In an interview with the exhibition curator, Ronex Ahimbisbwe, I was able to gain an understanding of the works in relation to the Ugandan audience it reached.
LR: Why did you decide to organize/participate in this exhibition on bark cloth?
RA: The main aim was to honour and exhibit artists who have contributed to the revival of bark cloth in Uganda. In Uganda, bark cloth was associated with witchcraft and death. As artists we thought it’s our responsibility to preserve this special material through our art works. Many artists have been inspired differently, as the images I sent you suggest.
As artists, it’s a material that gives us identity, and at the same time UNESCO saw it fit to be turned into a masterpiece. And it’s through some of these artists that bark cloth has been gradually accepted by Ugandan people in their homes. I give credit to artists for keeping this craft alive.
The art space I have created is called FAS FAS, its aim is to focus on such materials and concepts that are ignored mainly by commercial art galleries.
LR: What does reloaded mean to you? Why was Olubugo Reloaded chosen as the exhibition title?
RA: Olubugo is a kiganda name for bark cloth. Because bark cloth making is initially a craft made in Buganda, I thought using a word in luganda suited it better to give people a clue where the craft is made.
Reloaded means “authentically upgraded”.
LR: Why do you think so many artists are drawn to using bark cloth in their work?
RA: Not many are drawn to using the cloth … as it requires some level of experimentation, time and skill (it’s a fragile material) … this scares most artists.
LR: If the viewer is not familiar with bark cloth, is it important that the viewer knows the history of the cloth and the process of making it?
AR: History of the material and the process always helps more in the appreciation of the material and the craft of making bark cloth. That knowledge helps to understand why certain artists choose to use it the way they use it, like any other material, it has possibilities and limitations.
LR: There seem to be so many movements surrounding contemporary arts happening in Uganda right now. What is the role of bark cloth as a medium? Should it be set apart from other two and three-dimensional works that are created out of other materials?
AR: As said before, to me as an artist, bark cloth gives my art works identity; and to artists who love experimenting with textures, the cloth gives many possibilities. Bark cloth is special in its own right, whether it should be set aside from other material solely depends on the artists’ creativity and imagination. Though, my view is, it stands out better when mixed with other materials. This gives the cloth more possibilities than just left as a cloth.
LR: Are you interested in bringing these works to a larger audience, outside of Uganda?
AR: I would love to, if I could get an organization or individual to sponsor it.
My dream is to start a bark cloth museum. I was inspired when I was in Egypt, Cairo; I went to a small museum exhibiting papyrus, demonstrating the process and art works made on the paper. I am in the process of documenting art works made out of bark cloth and later the process in video and photographs. I hope in the future to write a book about bark cloth, the process and how artists have transformed the cloth. With the above in place, there will be a better understanding of bark cloth as a material.
The future is brighter so long as artists keep on experimenting and find better ways to use it in their art works to convey messages and if the Ugandan people continue to use it their cultural ceremonies.
Interview through email correspondence, March 15th, 2012.
Experimental exhibition space
Olubugo Reloaded is about bark cloth in Uganda. Its intent is to bring works created from this media to new audiences within Uganda, continually changing the perspective of what the material stands for and what it has the potential to become.
When I first viewed images of the exhibition, I wasn’t sure what I thought about the exhibition space and the way the works were displayed. The typical format that I view artworks is in the “white cube”; perfectly painted white walls, lighting that highlights each piece separately, all asking the viewer to step back from the composition. This view has a way of elevating the works, but it also distances it from the everyday life of the viewer.
After some thought, I began to see the importance of exhibiting the artworks in the free form atmosphere FAS FAS has created. As Ronex stated, FAS FAS was conceptualized to provide an experiential space, and of course, this means breaking out of the cube and allowing a greater degree of interaction between viewer and artwork.
The artist’s individual relationship with bark cloth is evident in many of the works in the exhibition. The medium has not fallen into a standard of working with it, the same techniques or materials being repeated by artist after artist. As Ronex said in our interview, bark cloth has more to say when it is manipulated, changed, mixed with other media and objects.
Several of the works stood out for their conceptual focus. The relationship of the body to the material was strong in the piece by Stella Atal.
The use of the cowrie shells suggests ceremony, or ritual, and the deep red cords and performative aspect of the work suggest a deep connection to what the material can imply to the viewer.
As you leave this piece you can see the opposite approach to the material; a functional mirror places bark cloth in relation to structured, geometric shapes and hard metal. The rich natural color of the cloth is emphasized through the treatment and media applied to the material.
The abstract expression approach present in Sanaa Gateja’s work balances between the tradition of painting and the suggestion of cultural identity through the use of bark cloth and paper beads. The paper beads, which are sold as necklaces in so many Ugandan markets, interact with the two-dimensional painted surface. What is usually conceived as a craft element, becomes a fine art medium in his work.
In an interview I did with Sanaa several years back, we discussed his interest in bark cloth. He said that each cloth tells the artist what it needs to become. As we look through the work in this exhibition, we see that each artist is allowing bark cloth to inform their concepts, leading to relevant works that engage contemporary Ugandan society.
The works in Olubugo Reloaded bring a unique perspective to this one material; unfortunately, space does not allow me to highlight every work or artist. I will say that each of their works has given me a new perspective of the potential for bark cloth to continue its evolution, while finding relevance and meaning in the artists’ hands.
The success of this show centers around the environment that FAS FAS has created; the gallery is asking the viewer to come close and experience the work, not just view it from afar. Viewers unfamiliar with bark cloth as a medium for contemporary art can slowly step into the space and absorb the transformation of this cloth into a medium for art and design; beyond what is typical in the tourist markets or their presumption about its meaning or use.
As I mentioned earlier, I have already found my perspective on this cloth from years of research and interaction with artists; but always in consideration of how it relates to art and design outside of Uganda. This exhibition is important because it presents these works and this material with a focus on what place it has in Uganda and within the contemporary arts of Uganda.
I continue to see that bark cloth is finding stronger ground every year and it is through the work of Ugandan artists and designers that this material continues to elevate its place within contemporary art.
Lesli Robertson, who is a faculty fellow in UNT’s Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, has traveled to Uganda several times in the last few years to study the process of making bark cloth. Also in the last few years, Robertson has organized various community projects to engage schoolchildren in Uganda and the United States in an exchange of artistic ideas.