Revitalising Ugandan Bark-Cloth – Concerns of the regime artist

Image: Modern Refugees, The difference between Africa’s refugees and their West counterparts was that there was hope behind the barbed wires.

I consider myself an artist of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime, which ousted former governments that were blamed for political turmoil that restricted Ugandan artists from optimal practice at home in the 70s and 80s. During that period, many artists migrated. Some of them like Fabian Mpagi, Geoffrey Mukasa, Romano Lutwama, may they rest in peace, returned in the late eighties and practiced in Uganda.

Blind Leading blink, Fred Mutebi on bark-cloth

Blind Leading Blind, Leaders and followers – the current state of affairs in our global community.

A social critic under NRM

I joined them in 1995 when I first showcased my art at the Nommo Gallery (the home of Ugandan artists) where I sold 90% of what I exhibited. Since then, I have been an artist of the regime, privileged to practice uninterrupted and living a life that describes the role of a creative artist in society. It is now thirty years down the road of the regime and twenty-three years of my practicing career as a researcher and social critic using the discipline of printmaking.

I think it is time for Ugandan art to re-brand and start promoting the indigenous art forms
By the time I joined the art school at Makerere University in 1989-93, printmaking was side-lined in the history of art and to oblivion in Uganda’s contemporary art practice. This is the reason I decided to put more weight on it for the last two decades. Now printmaking is at par with other disciplines in Uganda. Therefore, based on my experience, I think it is time for Ugandan art to re-brand and start promoting the indigenous art forms – to reinvent what may have been lost when formal art training was introduced by missionary-educator Margaret Trowell.

Social responsibility

In my quest to reconcile my social criticism using printmaking with problem-solving, I have ended up fully involved and embedded in the revitalization of Ugandan bark-cloth. Ask me why. I am trying to answer the big question: If Ugandan bark cloth was invented over 700 years ago, what could have happened to such a unique invention that its popularity was disoriented until 2008 when UNESCO named it a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity that must be preserved?

Modern Refugees, Fred Mutebi on bark-cloth
Modern Refugees, The difference between Africa’s refugees and their West counterparts was that there was hope behind the barbed wires.

Current Exhibition

My on-going exhibition at Afriart on 7th in Industrial Area, Kampala is a small portion of my research that aims at inspiring contemporary artists, researchers, Uganda’s private sector, and international companies to join in the struggle of re-positioning Ugandan bark-cloth to its rightful place in contemporary global usage.

New projects

The next project I have already started embarking on is printmaking on 100% bark-cloth paper as an alternative printmaking surface. Let us join our minds to strengthen Ugandan bark-cloth resumption by moving it from tradition to economics. The remaining elderly bark-cloth artisans need our support in their struggle of passing on skills to the youth.

Fred Mutebi
Contemporary Artist | Website

Fred Mutebi was born in 1967 and graduated from the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Arts in 1993. He works out of his home studio in Kisaasi, Kampala; as well as the bark-cloth research and innovation centre in Kibinge, Bukomansimbi district, Uganda that he initiated.

2 thoughts on “Revitalising Ugandan Bark-Cloth – Concerns of the regime artist

  1. Your contribution to the Uganda contemporary art scene, can not be ignored, Fred. You are one unique artist who has refused to succumb to stereotypes of settling in your comfort zone of print making and embracing the idea of producing art for sale. Nonetheless, your recent project on barkcloth seeks to answer many questions on the local art scene. It inspires the narrative on how art can be made more functional while employing millions of youth who claim they are unemployed. As the government relentlessly devises means to improve the livelihood of the young people “as if they are some sort of handicapped beings” barkcloth is one of those intervention it can look into.
    The exhibit at Afriart on 7th is one of those in a lifetime, because it challenges all of us to think beyond the ordinary. Sometimes our problems are not conspired by the outsiders, but our own self. Imagine Barkcloth has been here for all those years, but not a single booklet has been published by its custodian, the Buganda Kingdom.

  2. “Embarking”? Fred you sly wit! Happy to see you are keeping up the good work. Hope we cross paths again one day.

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