Image: Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is reviving the ancient art of making aute (Māori barkcloth or tapa cloth)
Uganda, Mekeka Designs, Circle palm and barkcloth small lumbar pillow
Today on the blog we’re celebrating bark cloth. Read on for extracts of an article originally published on the Textile Resource Centre Leiden blog, written by Caroline Stone, and to find out about the artists and artisans using bark cloth in their practice today.
You can also learn more about bark cloth in our upcoming online workshop, hosted by Lesli Robertson, where you'll be led through several creative projects to explore the potential of this material: Bark cloth virtual workshop
It has been suggested that bark cloth may be the oldest textile in the world, pre-dating the invention of weaving. A number of cultures have made bark cloth, the earliest known example is from South China, c. 6000 B.C, and other cultures made use of bark in similar ways. The Ainu, for example, split the bark of the Manchurian elm to make a thread that could be woven and in Russia, birch bark has been used for centuries as a writing material, for shoes, bags and all kinds of containers - but not as a textile.
In Uganda, bark cloth - lubugo - originated in the 14th c. with the Baganda people of the kingdom of Buganda in the south of the country and, according to oral tradition, was originally reserved for royalty and for certain ritual purposes. Indeed, the mallets used for beating the cloth formed part of the royal regalia. Important examples of lubugo at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, a World Heritage site, were largely destroyed by fire in 2010.
Over time, lubugo became more widespread and in the 17th c. it was made compulsory for farmers to produce bark cloth, which was exported to the surrounding countries, including what is now Tanzania, in exchange for ivory, salt, copper and tobacco. Until the importation of cotton cloth by Arab and European traders in the 19th c., bark cloth was the principal textile available. Most households would have trees from which the cloth could be made - generally mutuba (Ficus natalensis) and a man would not have been considered marriageable unless he could provide bark cloth for his bride.
Image: Image: Image: Detail of the bark cloth production process. The soaked bark is beaten for several hours with nsammo.
Bark cloth, although much less common today, still has great ritual and cultural significance in Uganda and is on the list of the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" (2008). The standard bark cloth is a reddish brown, but cream-coloured or cloth dyed black was produced for royalty and for ceremonial purposes.
The bark is peeled from the trees during the rainy season and the area of the trunk that has been stripped is often 'bandaged' with banana leaves to promote healing. If the trees are well cared for, the bark can be harvested annually, unlike Portuguese cork, which takes some nine years to regenerate. After the outer bark is scraped away with a knife, the inner strips are soaked in boiling water to soften them. Various weights of mallet, some grooved, are used to beat the bark thin and stretch it into a large sheet. The cloth is sometimes decorated with simple geometric wood block prints dipped in a natural earth dye, usually a darker brown. The design may be similarly added using a stencil.
Image: Image: Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief (detail), 2019. Oil on lubugo bark cloth. 200 x 150 cm. Courtesy the Artist and White Cube © Michael Armitage © White Cube (Theo Christelis).
Today, an important use for bark cloth is for shrouds, since the material is not only sacred, symbolising the ancestral spirits, but believed to have mummifying properties. Shops selling it and other objects, such as gourds, which have ritual purposes, are often close to coffin-makers. The cloth is also worn on ceremonial occasions, either like a toga over one shoulder and, for women, secured with a sash, or fastened round the waist, like a sarong.
Naturally, many prefer pieces that are as perfect as possible, without tears or mends, but foreigners tend to like the ones with 'darns' (usually white) and patches, slightly reminiscent of Japanese boro. Artist Michael Armitage uses lubugo as a canvas for his dreamlike, large-scale paintings of East African landscapes and city life, in which he embraces the natural tears and holes as part of the composition. Read more about the exhibition in the latest issue of Selvedge, Issue 102 Mend.
Mekeka Designs, who are currently taking part in the Selvedge World Fair 2021, have curated a line of pillows and meditation cushions that are made exclusively with fibres unique to Uganda - bark cloth, plaited palm and loom woven textiles - meaning that to handle their creations is to engage with the bark or leaves of a tree. All of their barkcloth is sourced from the members of the Bukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Association (BOFTA), led by 9th generation barkcloth expert Paul Bukenya. At BOFTA, they focus on engaging the community in preserving this knowledge through planting Mutuba trees and training the next generation of makers. Watch the video about to find out more about how bark cloth is made.
Image: Uganda, Mekeka Designs, Circle palm and barkcloth small lumbar pillow
We recently heard from Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) as part of the Selvedge World Fair Create Day. She is single-handedly reviving the ancient art of making aute (Māori barkcloth or tapa cloth) – a skill that, up until now, hadn’t been practised for over a century.
‘Aute’ is the name of both the paper mulberry plant and the finished barkcloth. When the aute plant is 18 months old, it’s cut and peeled off the stalk, leaving a white, sappy inner bark, which she scrapes and beats with shells and wooden beaters. It expands into cloth more than three times its original width, which can then be worn or stored to use later. Once it has been soaked for a few weeks to ret (ferment and soften) the fibres, Nikau beats the pores to create a large, smooth sheet together. Then, once dried, she paints on it with natural pigments, creating patterns inspired by tukutuku and tāniko weaving designs.
Follow along with Nikau's bark cloth journey @nikaugabrielle
Find out more and book our online bark cloth workshop with Lesli Robertson here: Selvedge Workshops