Jennifer is keen to introduce me to as many local artists and designers as possible, who are doing amazing things in and around Kampala. It is very interesting to observe and compare how they approach their work within the current climate and the innovative ways in which they use and manipulate local materials. I went to visit Xenson, a multimedia artist, poet and fashion designer at his studio in Kampala. Through his work, he addresses contemporary issues of identity consumerism, human excess and global circulation of culture. Art as intervention. He expressed concern at the safe approach of the majority of Ugandans and his desire to incite others to ‘Break the mould’ across all areas of society- not just art and design. This untainted freedom of expression is an ethos he has followed since the very beginning and refuses to be pigeonholed into a singular artistic expression.
- Xenson and I in his studio in Kampala. The mask and bag I am wearing are made by him using recycled materials.
I also met Wassawa, an artist and wood sculptor, amongst others. They all share an interest in fashion and have a lot to say about it here! We have interesting conversations about creativity vs the reality of making money, the second-hand clothing industry amongst other things. The struggle is real here and designers are not willing to take risks if it isn't going to make them money. It was good to hear from the perspective of those few Ugandans who have dared to “break the mould” despite their approach being too out there for most Ugandans to comprehend.
- More of Xensons work currently being exhibited at Afriart Gallery in Kampala
In terms of our approach to training, the people I have spoken to seem to agree that we need to teach our trainees to make a very specific, unique product to a high quality so it can be marketed on an international level. There are hundreds of tailors here but they are all doing the same thing. If we can teach the women how to make one or two beautiful garments/products that are unique and beautifully made it will attract a market and therefore an income for the women. With this in mind I am developing a small line of garments/ products that I will train the students in Mityana and Kampala how to produce. The intention is that this product line will develop/increase in the future but the key will always lie in the locally sourced fabrics and the quality of the product. I would like to incorporate wooden handles/ fastenings made from local wood (Charles, one of the artists I met, is keen to work with us on this) and use organic Ugandan cotton woven by Texda in Kampala. In terms of creating a story around the products this would work very well. I am also keen to incorporate bark cloth for this reason of creating and promoting a sustainable supply chain.
I went to visit Grace (who I met at TJX event in Fort Portal) from Texda (Textile Development Agency) in Kampala. They have eight looms where where they weave fabric for their clients using organic Ugandan cotton. Currently she is buying machine spun cotton and we have a discussion about using hand-spun, organically dyed cotton, which has come directly from the cotton farmers, thereby completing the whole transparent and sustainable process. She is embarking on training her employees how to hand-spin the cotton themselves. In terms of creating a story around the products this would work very well. I am also keen to incorporate bark cloth for this reason of creating a story and a sustainable supply chain.
Barkcloth is a fabric harvested from the Mutuba tree, an indigenous tree which provides a natural habitat for the wildlife of Uganda. The tree is not harmed during harvesting- the bark of the tree regenerates and can be harvested repeatedly over dozens of years. It is a great example of an environmentally-friendly, renewable material and on top of that, creating a global demand for barkcloth would help to create sustainable jobs in Uganda. The making of barkcloth has been a part of Ugandan culture for centuries. It is a sacred fabric which defines the spirit of the Buganda kingdom and remains a ceremonial dress code during coronations and funerals. Unfortunately though, the art of making barkcloth is slowly disappearing to modern, more harmful alternatives.
We return to Mityana to visit two more vocational training schools there, one of which taught weaving, knitting and embroidery alongside tailoring- not something we have seen much here. The principal pulled open a cupboard in his office which was bursting with hundreds of the same knitted sweaters in different colours which the students had done on the few domestic knitting machines they had. The students were very energetic and happy to have us there-lots of welcoming and clapping involved!
Back in Kampala I visited two more training schools. The first is called Ntunga Project set up in a slum area of Kampala by Streetlights Uganda and run by Victoria Merab. For this project Victoria, who is also a designer, works with women from the local slum and teaches then sewing skills etc. alongside business training skills. We met the women, those who have just graduated along with the new intake and they showed us all their work from the year. Graduation ceremonies are a big thing here-it means a lot to the students (however old!) to receive validation for their achievements. An amazing group of women with a very special energy-Victoria would love to have us on board to train them to produce high quality design for international market. This year she is bringing those who have graduated back to the classes with the new students so that they learn how to become teachers. This continuous cycle of sharing knowledge and training is very much in tune with the ethos of Paper Fig Foundation. Victoria has her own fashion show coming up which she has invited us to.
- One of the teachers at St Michaels Percoto vocational school in Mityana showcasing students work (left). Victoria and the women she is training at Ntunga project in Kampala (right).
On Saturday 14th October there was a shoot happening with three of the designers from KFW. I was brought in to do styling and have been working with Edward from Catherine and Sons to make accessories for the shoot, which I made from materials I collected from Owino market downtown. Edward was very open to my ideas -a different concept to the usual glamour shots you see here. It attracted a number of outside observers who clearly thought I was a mad woman!
During my time in Kampala I am also organising a series of talks and events with the UFC (Uganda Fashion Council) for local designers. The first event is taking place on 26th October where I will be discussing my design process, the importance of concept and how one might take an alternate approach to fashion design. I have noticed that quite a few of the designers here lack a real concept or consideration to what they are producing, which is partly due to the lack of access to research material, libraries etc. It is easy to take for granted the wealth of resources we have such easy access to back home! See the following link for event information: https://www.facebook.com/events/1476336995736247/