When Nakisanze merged high fashion with craft making practices

Sarah Nakisanze in studio with one of the works that were showcased at the exhibition last year. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • Connect. For Sarah Nakisanze, there is more to weaving and stitching fabrics than creating clothing. It is a communication and a means to connect with different heritages and stories.

On display at Sarah Nakisanze’s exhibition titled My Granary, My Home were five artefacts made from local materials such as bark-cloth, cowrie shells, raffia fibres, and straws, among others, focusing on Social Sustainability which is the third dimension of Sustainable Development referring to the state of good quality of life enabled by valuable societal relationships and ecology sustenance systems.

 Nakisanze says that Social Sustainability can be attained through social ideas that facilitate societal welfare including equity, wellbeing, social cohesion, participation and sustainability awareness.
 My Granary, My Home, was held at the Makerere Art Gallery, Makerere University from November 13 to 27, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Martha Kazungu, however, opened virtually on November 12, 2020.

In the exhibition and publication under the same title Nakisanze presented visual insights into her PhD research demonstrating how haute couture serves as a tool of information dissemination concerning matters regarding social sustainability within traditional basket making practices in central Uganda.

According to dictionary.com, haute couture refers to the world of high fashion and custom-made garments. The phrase comes from French and translates as “high sewing” or “high dressmaking.” It is synonymous with high fashion. Haute couture can refer to high fashion designers collectively, their profession, the clothes designed by them, or their businesses.

Nakisanze observes haute couture as a fashion domain and visual communication aesthetic has transcended basic representation of cultural artistry towards reinterpretation as a framework of intellectual visuality. The haute couture artefact has morphed into a platform for the dissemination of scholarly knowledge.

Nakisanze examined the notion of social sustainability through the commercialised past traditional basketry practice in central Uganda. Social sustainability, as a notion currently directing global order towards sustainable development refers to the state of good quality of life enable by valuable societal relationships and sustenance systems.

As such, a conceptual framework composed of equity, wellbeing, social cohesion, participation and sustainability awareness was adopted by Nakisanze to shape the context for the exploration. Data building on the concepts was collected from women basket weavers, situated in Kampala and Wakiso districts, through observation and focus group discussions. The data was taken through a creative practical inquiry, and translated into five haute couture artefacts, each representing a specific concept.

The concept 
“My Granary, My Home is metaphoric referring to the past traditional material as a storage of value for mankind. Here, I was very passionate and my feelings and experience strongly framed the choice. Literally and traditionally, a granary (Ekyaagi) is a storage for grain or food. Exploring that interpretation, I regard the past traditional material as a granary of wisdom, knowledge, skills and models of action from the past that society and I are still exploiting for livelihoods,” Nakisanze told Sunday Monitor.

“‘Home’ is contextualised as that welcoming and warm space that provides relief to a yearning heart.  As such, the past traditional aesthetic is the granary today, providing a material resource for livelihoods exemplified by the basketry practice in central Uganda,” she added.

 In simplifying her conceptual framework composed of “Equity, Wellbeing, Social Cohesion, Participation and Sustainability awareness,” Nakisanze, says: “First, I am a fashion designer-artist fascinated by the past traditional aesthetic. During the course of my doctoral research, trying to understand the contemporary return to past traditions for art and design expressions by other fashion-designer artists, I realised that very few art and design practitioners and artisans access academically researched knowledge regarding their practice.”

“The knowledge is shelved in formats and structures (books, journals, requires subscription, credit cards, affiliation to academic institutions, among others) that many of the creative practitioners and entrepreneurs do not, and may probably never access due to their backgrounds and practice contexts. This challenged me as an academician yet a member of these various creatives’ networks.”

“In addition, I discovered the potency and capacity of the popular culture fashion object. The object is embodied with an aura that penetrates wide spaces of culture because it is attractive and associated with values and interpretations that satisfy people’s desires. The fashion object can also be shaped by a language of cultural materials that people relate to. The disposition paved way for the fashion object as a possible platform for knowledge dissemination. A popular framework that can be used to reach the general public inclusively in order to deliver societal interventions.”

According to Nakisanze, equity refers to society’s inclusive access to the past traditions, for instance, wisdom, knowledge, skill and models of action from the past for the development, because the material is a property of society. No copyright laws required.

The attires
In the equity artefact, the inclusive attribute is symbolically alluded to by arrows directing movement to a mother womb imagery, all together indexically representing the productiveness embodied in past traditions.

“The blossoming head gear composed of the basketry ware, depicting fruits on a tree, further iconic of the renowned Tree of Life, augments the productivity. In fact, during the research, one of the participants confessed that the basketry skill and business knowledge had been handed down to them from their mother, who had equally acquired it from her mother,” Nakisanze says.

“Seemingly through the mammary gland, the pattern sustains that indeed past traditions fend for, and are engrained in society. The root-like garb tail is equally indexical of the rootedness and deep-seated position of the past traditions. It is then possible that the practice is taking care of multiple generations, which illuminates its abundance,” she adds.

According to Nakisanze, wellbeing is the comfortable quality of life and human development generated through adequate access to livelihood resources (water, food, health care, education, income, habitat, clothing and community networking).

In defining the wellbeing artefact Nakisanze, says, first, the artefact top is a traditional ‘mukeeka’ accessorised with ribbons imprinted with universal symbols of the wellbeing resources. The symbols signify; education, income, habitat, water, health care, clothing and community integration.

The bottom is a bark-cloth decorated with raffia, reflecting a containing garb. Grouping the garb pieces locates the arrangement in a cultural context that visualizes both a hut and granary, historical containers for the security of life, valuables and foodstuff respectively. Adorned with the wellbeing symbols ‘My Granary, My Home’ is suggestive of basketry as a life fulfilling practice, that stores and provides for society, she adds.

According to Nakisanze, Together It Lights haute couture represents social cohesion within the traditional basketry practice in central Uganda. The concept of social cohesion refers to the positive attitude towards cooperation of members of a society in order to nurture productive social wellbeing. As an aesthetic engrained in society, past traditions inevitably engender social relations and integration which enhance a sense of community belongingness.

According to Nakisanze, participation is the goal of including all social groups in the decision-making processes to enhance inclusivity, cohesion and security. The concept of participation is a necessary component in attainment of social sustainability and herein signified by the haute couture entitled Amazing Protest: Our Voices Matter.

In her description of Amazing Protest: Our Voices Matter, Nakisanze, says, the haute couture artefact is a composition of Ugandan traditional ethnic dress designs; the toga, common in western Uganda, kanzu, embraced by all regions and ‘gomesi’ from the ‘Baganda’ in the central region.

Art and craft. PHOTO/FILE

According to Nakisanze, sustainability awareness refers to the promotion of behavioural change towards ecological production and consumption to save people and the earth.

In addition to the use of iconic and symbolic signifiers, Nakisanze, says, the haute couture is also composed of grouped pieces: a human stimulation dressed in a poly-viscose fabric print adorned with raffia fringes; a bark-cloth garb printed with a leaf motif symbolic of a sustainability shield, and lastly, a basketry ware globe embellished to reflect the environment.

According to Nakisanze, the exhibition and publication are a two-fold expression: uncovering the fashion object (haute couture) as a new frame for publishing intellectual knowledge to all including the non-academic targeted audiences; articulation of the contemporary role of past traditions (cultural heritage material) in enabling the Sustainable Development dimension of Social Sustainability, through the traditional basketry practice in central Uganda.

As to the importance of holding the exhibition, Nakisanze says it publicly communicates the newly generated knowledge; the fashion object translated into an intellectual knowledge publication platform like journals or books. It effectively delivers generated knowledge down to the target audience, and also highlights the crucial need for researchers to ensure that knowledge reaches the targeted people, other than expire in unreachable shelves.

It showcases the relevant role of the fashion designer-artists in society. They are architects of knowledge vessels in society. They can work with researchers to have information effectively delivered to the people. It portrays the evolutionary quality of past traditions, which supports its resilience through culture growth and development. It illuminates the livelihoods value embodied in past traditions such as great insight into possible art and design creative pathways towards uplifting the marginalised Ugandan creative industry.

About Nakisanze
Nakisanze, who was born in Kampala, is a fashion designer, educator and art practice researcher who engages a lot with indigenous traditional craft materials and other fibres for eco-product design development within artisanal communities, and for her artistic fashion expression.

She is a lecturer of fashion design and research at the Margaret Trowel School, of Fine and Industrial Art, Makerere University in Kampala and further offers knowledge in product design and artistic skills to artisanal communities. Her research interests include visual culture, fashion and product design as well as material culture exploration, production management, North and South trade relations.

Over the years of her design action and social enterprise research, creations, innovations and knowledge have been generated and showcased on various local and international platforms.

She works in fiber, particularly bark-cloth, to create fabric patterns based on traditional Ugandan motifs.

Her art works are labelled Nakisanze Sarah. Her eco-product design works are labelled Lususu managed and presented by Easy Afric Designs Limited. Easy Afric Designs is a socially motivated fair trade oriented organization based in Kampala, and engaged in the creation of high quality eco-chic fashion accessories, home décor, corporate items and gift packaging options.

The hand crafted products are mainly made out of ‘bark-cloth’ a unique international cultural heritage fabric, sustainably harvested by hand from the fig tree known as ‘Mutuba’ (Ficus natelensis) in Uganda. Bark-cloth is complemented with other natural and/or safe fabrics and fibres.

She is also an activist and facilitates workshops on rural craft practice and HIV/Aids awareness.

She holds a BA Fine Art and a Master’s of Art in Fine Arts degrees both from Makerere University; all levels with major research in fashion design. She is currently engaged in PhD studies and her research is an interrogation of the communities she has explored in the past years.

She seeks to build onto a visual discourse of cultural traditional aesthetic as a locus for empowerment and liberation of the artisanal woman and artist. She intends to complete her PhD in 2021. She lives in Kampala with her two children.

About Nakisanze

Sarah Nakisanze is the founder of Easy Afric Designs. She  is creating some truly unique and authentically Ugandan gift items, accessories and art pieces, all celebrating the beauty of barkcloth.

This is one company raising the global profile and interest in traditional Ugandan design and craftsmanship, and taking it to a whole new level