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Exploring Bark Cloth with students from Israel and Uganda

    by Lydia Schmelzer

    Can textiles and physical materials serve as a mechanism for cultural exchange? How can these exchanges, in turn, lead to more innovative design? These are some of the questions we sought to answer during our week-long bark-cloth workshop this past spring. From April 26th-May 3rd 2021, CoCuDi, in collaboration with the African Studies Gallery, partnered with Shenkar College and Makerere University to host a workshop in bark-cloth with students from both academies.

    Bark-cloth is a textile indigenous to and a speciality of Uganda. Throughout the week,  the students explored techniques and its multitude of uses throughout the week. They also engaged in cross cultural dialogue and collaboration via material design. Doreen Namatovu, the Makerere based coordinator of the workshop, spoke about the student and mentor experience. Doreen emphasized that bark-cloth is a “cultural fabric” that Uganda is known for. As a canonical Ugandan textile, this everyday material carries a lot of cultural and historical significance. “For example in Uganda there are a number of norms that are attached to the bark-cloth. So if you want to use the bark-cloth you find yourself learning the history, and the production process of the bark-cloth.You just find yourself learning history” she said. Studying bark-cloth illuminates key aspects of Ugandan history and society. In line with CoCuDi’s mission of using art to develop cross-cultural understanding, both the students from Shenkar and Makerere learned new things from exploring this ancient material. Students enthusiastically inquired about the cultural significance of the materials, and in turn, gained insights into Ugandan heritage. Doreen highlighted one particular group who centered their project on the national birds of Uganda and Israel. “[The project] is showing how they were inspired by their two birds from different countries and working on a piece from two different locations. So to me I believe that the workshop that the collaboration was so important, so necessary and I am looking forward to more and more classes. So I believe that collaboration was really a success — it yielded, I should say,” she said. 

    The workshop was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first three days of the workshop focused on theory, and the second half provided students with the opportunity to work with bark-cloth together in groups with students from both schools. Holding the workshop online created some unforeseen challenges. Doreen recalled many technical difficulties that altered the structure and experience of the course. In Makerere, the students had trouble with internet connection and had to switch locations throughout the course. Additionally, many files were too big to be shared live over zoom, and the students had to improvise a new way to show their work. In a normal year, both students would be in the same location and could speak face to face and tangibly interact with each other’s art work. Instead, Makerere students would record a narrative of their piece and share it on a drive that Shenkar students would give feedback on and vice versa. Despite a slower collaboration process, participants from both universities still gained a lot from the exchange. However, the virtual nature of the program made it more accessible. “Students were able to interact with the students from Shenkar university without physical movement and they were able to learn from each other without physically being in Israel or Shenkar students being in Uganda at Makerere University” said Doreen. Covid also allowed more students to participate in the workshop. Whereas, typically, the budget would only be able to fly 1-2 students and faculty, this year, the program was able to accommodate many more students. 

    As a textile designer in Uganda, Doreen is very familiar with bark-cloth. Yet, even she learned something new in the workshop. In her own work, she has been searching to sustainably make bark-cloth softer and more comfortable to wear without using synthetic fabrics. Throughout the workshop, Doreen noted how the Shenkar students, who had never worked with bark-cloth before and had no preconceived notions of its purposes, were more willing to experiment. One group of Shenkar participants began to mix the bark-cloth with wool. “I saw how students mixed it with the wool and it even gave it more color, it added thickness and made it softer. Now this is something that I have been looking for. You know, I always make my pieces and I’m like, okay how is it going to be friendly to the skin but without adding a nylon fabric or those other fabrics? Because they don’t decompose with the bark-cloth. They are not eco-friendly. So when I saw the wool with the bark-cloth, that was it for me! How the Shenkar students mixed those fabrics, I just know I learnt a lot” Doreen exclaimed. This new discovery perfectly encapsulates how cross cultural partnerships can lead to new and innovative design. 

    Shenkar and Makerere students alike used their experience with bark-cloth to connect to the group on a personal, collective, and socio-cultural level. Even during a global pandemic, CoCuDi and the students at both universities found creative ways to accomplish the mission of the project: to use physical material and indigenous textile to foster an exchange of ideas and connect with different people. 

    Doreen reflected on the entirety of the workshop, “if you learn about another culture and about the artifacts in their culture, you just want to come back home, put more effort in your culture and see how best you can utilize the treasure you have” Doreen’s experience of the bark-cloth seminar reminds us of the importance of engaging with other cultures. But they also urge us to emerge with a deeper appreciation for our own home and what is available to us where we are. 

    This project would not have been possible without the hard work of many people. From Makerere University, Dr. Venny Nakazibwe, Doreen Namatovu, Angella Babirye, Esther Ndagire Kavuma and Donald Nantagya. Hadass Himmelschein, Yuval Etzioni, and Shira Shoval from Shenkar College, Tamar Dekel from CoCuDi, and Idit Toledano from the African Studies Gallery.