Being a full-time artist in Uganda for over a decade amidst a fast-changing environment requires resilience and persistence. As complex as it might seem, a multi-disciplinary practice grants me the freedom to navigate between commentary on evolving cultures, confronting themes such as destructive urbanization, and innovating with indigenous materials. Exploring across papermaking, weaving, installation, and drawing with fire—and being able to recover from pitfalls—has been a master class to self-discovery.
A pivotal moment in my journey was in 2013 while working with waste paper for my solo exhibition titled “40 Twists” at Artpunch Studio in Kampala. I realized possibilities in the different sculptural abilities of paper. I could manipulate this material to develop a distinct yet profound communication format that was not limited to writing or drawing on the paper’s surface. Furthermore, the fact that paper is made from natural fibers confirmed my decision to experiment with it as an Earth-conscious art practice. Ubiquitous in domestic spaces, I was interested not only in using resource-friendly paper but also nurturing fibers to benefit nature. This led to my research on bark cloth, raffia, and banana fiber for hand papermaking, being mostly drawn to bark cloth. It has a regenerative and low-impact process, historical relevance, and vast potential for texture and dimension. I was excited to explore it in a way that I had not seen nor accomplished before.
Driven by this revelation to look to nature, I sought to document my findings in transforming bark cloth. In 2017, a parent residency at Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York granted me the opportunity to begin the extensive research in producing material to make into handmade paper that I could later use for my art. I discovered that shredding and beating bark cloth to make pulp for paper echoed bark-cloth making. As intensive as it was, the process was therapeutic, meditative, peaceful, and fulfilling. I had found my healing. I was able to create paper with variations in color and thickness, establishing textured expressions for different moods, circumstances, and spaces.
The most rewarding aspect was that I could plant and grow all the raw materials for my work. Ugandan bark cloth uses the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis, natal fig tree) and harvesting does not require the tree to be felled. To allow the bark to regenerate, the exposed trunk is carefully wrapped with banana leaves. This harvesting can go on annually for over 40 years and can produce over 200 square meters of bark cloth. Additionally, the natal fig tree has multiple medicinal purposes, and its roots regenerate soil quality by retaining water even during dry seasons. Therefore, this tree supports sustainable agriculture year-round and complements mixed cropping. Knowing and witnessing the natal fig tree’s multiple values to our communities, I am encouraged to plant them and harvest the renewable bark.
In my research, it was interesting to discover that bark-cloth making existed across Central Africa, West Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Central America. Among my tribe—the Baganda people of Central Uganda—bark-cloth making is called Okukomaga and was taboo for women to practice. This contrasts with the Tonga in the Pacific where “bark cloth making locally known as ngatu is a thriving art form of contemporary expression practiced by women to create capital.” It also has significance in Fiji, where “bark cloth making is the most socially surviving significant art form.”
For “ABAANA Ba KINTU,” my 2022 solo exhibition at the Makerere University Chemistry Laboratory, in Kampala, Uganda, I revisited the patriarchal Okukomaga practice to examine contemporary culture and create archives of new generations. The Luganda proverb Abaana Ba Kintu Tebaggweerawo Ddala inspired the title and translates to “the descendants of Kintu will never die out.” This proverb is a call to encourage humankind’s constant renewal, which is also the nature of the regenerative natal fig tree. Situated inside a modern chemistry laboratory with water taps, sinks, gas pipes, and cylinders, the sculptural installation was a metaphoric house representing my late maternal grandfather’s home. Bamboo-framed bark-cloth paper art acted as the walls of the cube and dry grass covered the floor. The laboratory had high ceilings and large glass windows, which exposed the walk-in structure to natural light that shifted through the day and night, visually merging tradition and advancement. Fire drawings and patterns on the paper variably revealed and hid the laboratory in a play of light and shadow. Two of the walls were fenced off with sticks standing in sand-filled troughs to represent a patriarchal presence. In Ugandan and African communities, walking sticks are symbolic objects commonly used by old men, chiefs, or men in authority who are the walls of the community. Historically, no decisions were made outside of these walls.
As we journey through life encountering new dynamics, we ought to ponder on whether they birth a resourceful or destructive transformation. My use of fire to draw is a poetic performance of this idea. With small sticks I use fire to prick patterns and forms on bark-cloth paper. In the artwork Cost of Oxygen, part of the “ABAANA Ba KINTU” exhibition, I drew lungs using this technique. The tree and healthy lung are seen with perfectly fire-pricked patterns. Fire is known to destroy, especially when it gets out of hand. However, in my work, I control its behavior and intentionally make sure it does not get out of control. Just like making sure fire does not burn food, it is not disruptive but rather a productive construction.
The transformational journey of bark cloth is a tool I utilize to spark conversations on evolution in current human behavior, activities, relationships with the biosphere. The interaction in shared spaces is where we embody new physical and spiritual patterns. Our lives are intertwined just like fibers and regenerated through the embodiment of new experiences. This interrogation through material culture is therefore an appeal to think critically about our connection with nature.
Through rapid urbanization and advanced technology, new generations are quickly adapting destructive trends, altering communal spaces and ecosystems and ignoring traditional craft practices that could evolve to help collective wellbeing. There is a need to holistically coexist with nature by revisiting and re-inventing old indigenous ways that have the potential to restore life.
Elsa Pooley, The Complete Field Guide to Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei (Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust, 1993). Also see Stefan Dressler, Marco Schmidt, & Georg Zizka, African Plants–A Photo Guide (Frankfurt/Main: Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, 2014).
Matei & Mona Ta’ufo’ou, Ngatu ‘uli Launima, 2019, artwork featured in “Garden of Ten Seasons,” 2022 exhibition at SAVVY Contemporary Berlin Germany.
Rod Ewins, “Barkcloth and the Origins of Paper,” originally presented as the keynote address at The First National Paper Conference in Hobart in May 1987. Published in the Conference Papers, distribution to conferences only, by Papermakers of Australia. Delivered at the 10th Annual Meeting of the Friends of the Dard Hunter Paper Museum in Grants Pass, Oregon in October 1991.
The Baganda believe that their legendary ancestor Kintu was the first person on earth. Kintu, meaning “thing” in Bantu languages, is commonly attached to the name Muntu.