Bark cloth shines at US African textile museum

Wednesday March 09 2022
Ankole cowhorn

Two large pairs of polished Ankole cowhorn on display at the African Textile Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO | COURTESY


The Ugandan embassy in Washington, DC and the African Textile Museum in Atlanta, Georgia recently held an event to showcase Uganda’s bark cloth as part of the commemoration of Black History Month.

The event, dubbed Bark Cloth to the Roots, which took place at the Museum on February 26, put a spotlight on Uganda's bark cloth as the oldest known African textile.

In 2005, Unesco declared the Ugandan bark cloth a "masterpiece of oral and intangible cultural heritage", and in 2008 it was added to the World Heritage List.

At the launch of the exhibition, proprietor of the museum Ahneva Hilson, paid tribute to Africa as the birthplace of fashion.

"The African Textile Museum was established in 2020 to curate and preserve African textile history. Its purpose is to share the work of present-day African artisans, scholars and creative designers not only in moving the fashion industry forward but also in playing a key role in conservation and sustainability programmes," he said.

Hilson said Uganda was the first African country to commission and donate special heritage items specifically for the museum.


"Culture is often the key that opens the door to doing business," she said. "There has been a yawning gap between the cultures of the Africans and Americans of African descent, despite the deep cultural heritage that they share. Recognising this important part of our joint heritage is a major step in the direction of bridging the gap and creating an enabling environment of doing business in Africa."

Bark cloth garments

Bark cloth garments designed by Jose Hendo at the African Textile Museum in Atlanta. PHOTO | JOSE HENDO

The Ugandan embassy commissioned the two bark cloth installations donated to the museum by London-based fashion designer Jose Hendo. Hendo is a Ugandan-born British national who has been using bark cloth in renewable and recyclable materials for over 20 years. In addition, the museum received a donation two extra-large pairs of polished Ankole cowhorn.

Highly skilled craft

In an interview with the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation held on the sidelines of the event, Uganda’s ambassador to the US Mull Katende said: "Bark cloth production is a highly skilled craft passed down through many generations."

"The process of making bark cloth existed before weaving was invented and has been passed down from generation to generation for over 700 years. This makes it one of the oldest natural textiles in history and one whose stamp of ownership we must clearly express," Katende added.

Speaking virtually from London, Hendo informed the guests that due to the growing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry, there is an increasing demand for natural materials or fibres as designers embrace sustainable raw materials and promote traditional craftsmanship.

Bark cloth is made from the Mutuba (Ficus natalensis) tree.

In her concept note for the installation, Hendo says: "…Bark cloth was traditionally popular for clothing, but today, bark cloth is rather used for craft products such as hats, book covers, along with paintings and handbags. It is also used for some traditional ceremonies and funerals."

"Barkcloth is one of Africa’s surviving cultural materials that has been kept alive within some tribes in Uganda, despite the fact that some of Africa’s authentic materials, cultures, and other regalia have been lost," Hendo adds.

According to Hendo, the woman’s ensemble is inspired by how women used to wear barkcloth, wrapped around the body and tied around the waistline. It was all very simple, practical and most importantly biodegradable and so is this woman’s ensemble.

The man’s ensemble is a four-piece also inspired by how they used to wear bark cloth in the past and also how the men dress for traditional occasions today. A modern take on the Kanzu (tunic), here it is finished it off with bark cloth collar, with bark cloth across the body, as the men wore bark cloth in the past tied over one shoulder. Included is an upcycled blazer to complete the look. The cape is shield like too as in the Coat of Arms.

The exhibit of the bark cloth and the unique features of the Ankole Cow horn as sources of sustainable, original materials for the film and fashion industry is a great opportunity. The materials will be introduced to costume designers and the fashion industry alike to promote their use, according to Hendo.