Bark Cloth

Bark-cloth is a traditional Ugandan material mainly used for clothing at formal ceremonies. The cloth is made through a long process using the bark from fig trees.

The bark is removed from the tree but the tree is then protected by banana leaves so that the bark can regrow. Joseph Ssekiziyivu Tamale (right) is an artist based in Kampala who uses the project as a work shop and a place to teach the use of bark cloth to new students.

Joseph is an innovator using the material for unconventional purposes such as lampshades, pillow cases, bags, and also as a drawing canvas. He also uses organically grown calabash gourds (grown at the project) as lamp-stands.

Uganda's bark cloth has been named as part of the world's collective heritage recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO).

Joseph Ssekiyivu Tamale

"My names are Joseph Ssekiziyivu Tamale and I work with bark-cloth.

"I joined the Dewe School of Art Project in 2005 and I got interested in bark-cloth. We make bark cloth from a tree – we remove the tree bark and then we hammer it to make this soft cloth. I use bark-cloth because my grandfather made it before me and this inspired me to take it up. I print on it and make various products.

"Bark cloth initially was used as a cloth for  Baganda (a district of Uganda) then in Akole and other districts. Now people are becoming interested in it again. It got an award in 2005 from UNESCO as a world heritage material.

"The tree used is the fig tree, the botanical name is ficus natalensis – we have it here at the Project. There are two ways of doing it when you remove the bark. You either cook it, boiling it in water, or, if you want black bark-cloth, you take it and put it in the swamp for three days, then it starts to ferment and this makes another colour – the black bark-cloth. For the brown bark-cloth, we take it direct from the tree, remove the hard cover, boil it in water, then we put it in the sunshine. The more time it is the sun, the more brown it goes. It should only take one day or two to dry. Then we hit it with a mallet to flatten it.

"I do it for myself, but I also teach people. I also make paintings on bark-cloth, but I mainly make interior designs. I got ideas from the Dewe Project about how to be creative and how to market myself. I added this to what I learnt at Makere University where I took Art and Design. The waistcoat I'm wearing (above ) is brown bark-cloth with black bark-cloth added for decoration. I take black bark-cloth and twist it for the decoration. This is not a traditional design, but one I have invented.

"For the lampshades, we get glue from the rubber tree and we mix it and stick it to the bark cloth. It is good for lampshades as it gives contrasting light. I make sure everything I use is natural, even the dies I use. I get them from trees – we don't use chemicals. I started the idea of using the glue with the cloth and I don't think anyone else is doing it. The gourds are taken from the calabash plant, which is also grown here at the project."

"There are many types of trees – some create white bark cloth  - but if you remove bark from the tree that creates white bark-cloth, it will die so we don't encourage people to use it. But for brown or black-cloth, after you remove the bark, you cover the area with banana leaves for three or four days so that it regains its bark.  The leaves protect it from sunshine and external pests. From that, we heat it, to get the cloth. Initially, bark cloth is used for ceremonial cloth for Kwanjula (Introduction) and for the burial ceremony. It was used as clothing before colonial times.

"The problem is you can't clean it easily because it doesn't mix with soap. You have to dry or steam clean it.

"The bark-cloth tree can grow in all equatorial climates but it is in Uganda mostly and Benin that we make it. It is gown mainly in the Natal province in Uganda. It was the first coat worn by the Kabaka (king of Baganda).

"If you plant a tree, it takes 4 to 6 years to grow. You harvest only in the rainy season and you can harvest a tree for around 40 years, if you take care of it – so about 8 harvests.

"You can grow the tree together with the banana plants and they work for each other. It creates very sweet matooke and in turn the banana shedding leaves creates food for the fig tree. We are planting more trees at the Project so we can soon start to produce more bark-cloth here."

Joseph Ssekiziyivu Tamale - Dewe School of Art, June 2010