Uganda & United States Cross Cultural Collaboration, Mekeka Designs, Bark Cloth
Lesli Robertson launched Mekeka Designs in 2018 in an effort to focus on the beauty of handcrafted legacy textiles from Uganda. The story of how this textile studio came about began in 2005, when Lesli began co-leading numerous research and education projects with Ugandan colleagues focused on traditional craft practices. In 2008, she began working closely with artist and activist Fred Mutebi on arts programming in the local communities to promote the preservation of Ugandan barkcloth. She fell in love with this material because of its history, cultural relevance, and positive environmental impact, and in 2011 she curated an international exhibition focused on it, Material Evolution: Ugandan Barkcloth.
Ugandan bark cloth, lubugo, is a complex and unique material. It is the main cultural product of the Buganda people, the largest tribe in Uganda, who have been creating the cloth from trees for hundreds of years. Although its name translates to ‘funeral cloth’ or ‘shroud’, lubugo is not only used for burying the dead: it is also used in ceremonies; as clothing, bedding, window screens, and around the home; and has since evolved to signify the identity of the Buganda. Lubugo is now being explored for its unique properties by contemporary Ugandan artists who are finding ways to create new approaches to fashion and design.
Plaited palm leaf mats, or mikeeka, can be found throughout Ugandan homes tightly rolled in the corners with their vivid patterns peeking out. They are used to welcome guests and are given as gifts for special occasions such as weddings and births. The history of how this technique came to Uganda is not widely studied, but it can be assumed that it came in the mid-1800s when Uganda opened up to foreign trade.
When Lesli decided to step away from higher education to launch Mekeka Designs, she once again began working with Fred Mutebi along with cultural experts Josephine Mukasa and Pamela Kyagera. With a long list of accolades and experience in the artisan sector, Josephine and Pamela are deeply rooted in the knowledge of materials, techniques, and makers throughout Uganda. Through their expertise and Lesli’s textile background, they have been working alongside individuals, weaving studios, and co-operatives throughout Uganda to collectively merge their knowledge of material, technique, and design into new approaches to traditional craft practices.
Now, the team works with expert artisans in Uganda to create beautiful loom woven, plaited, and hand pounded textiles that have a strong cultural and environmental association. For the Selvedge World Fair they are curating a line of pillows and meditation cushions that are made exclusively with fibres unique to Uganda - barkcloth, plaited palm and loom woven textiles - meaning that to handle their creations is to engage with the bark or leaves of a tree.
To follow the story of Mekeka Designs, find them on social media here.