History of Modern Batik Art


We are inviting enthusiasts of the Modern Batik style on a journey in art which visits the past, pauses in the present, and continues long into the future. You’re going to discover how, over millenniums, a traditional art craft has evolved into an art form embraced by respected artists and collectors around the world. The freedom and immediacy of working with wax and dyes on fabric is similar to that of watercolour painting or acrylic painting. Batik is an ancient craft and the effect that can be achieved through resist dyeing often results in amazing, unpredictable texture and tones. Batik designs can be as complicated or simple as the artist’s desires. They can be realistic and pictorial or purely expressive (abstract). The main goal, when working with modern batik art, is to enjoy the medium and allow the versatility of wax and dyes to reveal itself gradually to you on fabric (cotton).

brief history

Although experts disagree as to the precise origins of batik, samples of dye resistance patterns on cloth can be traced back thousands of years ago to Egypt and the Middle East. Samples from past centuries have also been found in Turkey, India, China, Japan and West Africa. Although in these countries, people were using the technique of dye resisting decoration, within the textile realm, none had developed the batik art form up to the 1960’s as the highly developed intricate batik found on the island of Java in Indonesia.

Batik Arrives in Uganda, East Africa in the 1960’s

Throughout history drama and intrigue permeated the world of art, playing a major role in the development of some of the most extraordinary breakthrough in artistic expression. A prime example of this is the Renaissance period. Without exception, the evolving of Modern Batik style was accelerated in the 1970’s from its entry into East Africa in the early 60’s. At the height of the regime of Ugandan’s Idi Amin Dada, many of the best known and respected members of the Ugandan art community moved to Nairobi, Kenya. They craved to work in more peaceful surroundings. Once settled, batiks became their main source of income. Their works provided tourists with meaningful mementos of their adventurous trips to East Africa. At this pivotal period in the evolution of the Modern Batik style, we would be amiss in ignoring the works of two talented Ugandan artists, the two brothers- Henry Lutalo Lumu and David Kibuuka, whose extraordinary innovations and refinements would truly revolutionize batik art in East Africa and take it to another level. These innovations provided the art community with unique techniques which would open up endless possibilities for their individual artistic expression.

David Kibuuka

David Kibuuka started painting at an early age in Uganda. His talent became quickly apparent at the age of 11 as he was able to sell his paintings in art galleries, such as Nomo Gallery in Kampala. At that time, David’s strength was pencil drawing and water color.

He was introduced to batik by his secondary school art teacher, Joseph Mungaya, who worked in the traditional batik technique. This was the first time David would see art being created on fabric with the use of wax and dyes. As Mungaya finished a series of batiks he was obligated to send them to Nairobi, Kenya to be sold to tourists. This practice was becoming more and more necessary because Idi Amin had seriously disrupted the normal lifestyle of the average Ugandan. David was no exception. So critical was the situation, he decided to leave Uganda for Nairobi- just one year after being introduced to batik art. Batik art would become his sole source of income, right through the completion of his art college education in Nairobi. David’s artistic range included his exquisite Pencil drawings and Water colors, Oils, Acrylics.

Nairobi, Kenya

The Modern Batik style was dramatically altered over a period of 13 years. This period spans the time of David’s arrival in Kenya in 1977 until his graduation from Ontario College of Art and Design in Canada in 1990. One year after David’s arrival in Nairobi, his elder brother Henry Lutalo Lumu joined him. While in Kenya, Henry developed new techniques that would revolutionize the art of batik painting. Using the same traditional materials of water based dyes, wax and fabric that were used in the traditional Indonesian batik, Henry applied the colors in reverse order, starting with darker hues and ending with light. Also importantly, instead of using dyes in full strength by mere dipping the fabric in them, he controlled the gradual dilution of the same dyes and applied them to the fabric using paintbrushes. This revolutionary approach allowed Henry to create detailed, refined images with dramatically enhanced tonality, shading and depth.

Kibuuka, who was working closely with his brother, introduced an additional technique called ‘fragmentation’ to this medium. This modification added increasing background depth, broadness and a richer palette of colours to the batik art technique, allowing this novel fine art medium to yield control, detail and richness comparable to acrylic and watercolour painting. These modifications have given Modern Batik Art extraordinary flexibility.

The rapid development and acceleration of the modern batik technique during the Nairobi era was brought up by these factors:

  • The gallery art dealers and tourist curio art dealers controlled all the outlets. They paid very little money for the batiks which forced artists to produce batiks in huge numbers. Usually the numbers were from 80 to 300 batiks a month.
  • A number of Ugandan, European and Kenyan artists who were involved in supplying tourist batik market produced intense competition among artists that different styles and techniques began to emerge.

There were three batik categories:

  1. Super realistic batiks
  2. Semi-abstract batiks
  3. Traditional batiks.

Other notable Ugandan, Kenyan and European batik artists during the 80’s were, Wasswa, Senkoto, Mutyaba, Sekanwagi, Heidelane, Lukenge, Mugalula, Mungaya, Lubega, Nyanzi, Nsonko, and Gogo, who all contributed to the expansion of the Modern Batik Art.