In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Scottish travellers, missionaries and colonial officials were among the first Europeans to visit east and central Africa. The objects they collected whilst living amongst those whose customs and traditions were so unfamiliar, form the backbone of the National Museum of Scotland’s early ethnographic collections. These collections are tied into the complex historical relationships between Scotland and Africa, however, it is often the case that little was documented regarding the collectors particular collecting strategies or acquisition. In these collections is a type of cloth, barkcloth, a material which predates weaving and is probably the most ancient form of indigenous cloth. It is this cloth, which in the strictest definition of the term is not a textile as it is not woven,1 which is the focus of my paper. There is barkcloth in the Museum collections from several neighbouring east and central African countries. The earliest was presented in 1878 by missionary Dr Robert Laws (1851-1934) and throughout the 1880s and 1890s others were presented by missionary Reverend Alexander Hetherwick (1860-1939) from modern day Malawi along with barkcloths originating from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. This geographical spread is representative of barkcloth as the most common material for a range of uses in many neighbouring cultures during this period. In this paper I focus on barkcloth from Uganda in east Africa, and in particular on its use by the Bagandans (in the kingdom of Buganda), the largest ethnic group in the country. Here, as Professor of Art Venny Nakazibwe has discussed, the meaning of barkcloth has been in a continuous state of flux dependent on change in the social, political and economic context.2 My paper explores a century and a half of the Museum’s engagements with this unusual material. It examines how the collections reflect and document the cultural status of barkcloth over the years to reveal how this non-woven fabric is ‘woven’ into the very fabric of the nation of Uganda. In particular I focus on the influence of external contact, from Swahili-Arab traders, Western missionaries and colonial administrators, which coincide with the period barkcloth began to enter the Museum collections. Descriptions of the function of barkcloth and the local importance attached to the material are included in the first published accounts of European travellers and missionaries in the territory now constituting Uganda. Whilst these 19th century descriptions often reveal the value judgements of the author, as textile historian Sarah Fee has observed,3 the importance of cloth and the power of chiefly patronage in the maintenance and modification of clothing fashion and styles is clear. Uganda, unlike neighbouring countries, continues to produce barkcloth to the present day. This has provided opportunities not only for this study to examine aspects of the cultural history of barkcloth but also to engage with contemporary Ugandan artists and makers. Many are working with this material in their visual exploration and expression of indigenous history, religion, politics and identity; themes through which the Museum’s collection can be further contextualised. In May 2016 I visited Kampala, to reconnect with artist Sanaa Gateja who I first worked with during his artist residency in Scotland in 2014.4 What I discovered is that barkcloth is a material which arouses strongly held opinions, a material which is driving community initiatives and creative energy, and above all, provides a dynamic link between past and present.
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