Nunu Yilma is the creative mind behind Ethiopian Batik, a textile art and clothing brand that employs the ancient craft of batik. She makes one-of-a-kind pieces of textile art and items of clothing that recently showcased at a pop-up show at Store 251, a boutique showcasing locally produced items at Jupiter Hotel.
Nunu’s background as a tech management consultant was rewarding but did not give her the creative outlet she desired. Learning graphic design eventually led to exploring batik and textile art.
“I changed my career after my kids grew and I wanted to learn something artistic. Graphic design led me to explore batik. I spent 5 years in the process, learning, taking tutorials, watching youtube videos. The learning curve was high because I was teaching myself. But that also helped me develop my own technique that other people are not doing.” says Nunu. “I really didn’t expect to come to where I am today. I learned a lot. It pushes me. I’m challenged. Once I got a taste of that I was addicted.”
Nunu cites an intensive 3-day course with an Indonesian batik master to be an experience that took her craft to another level. Batik is said to have emerged in Indonesia two thousand years ago and its presence there predates written records. Java is the most popular region for this particular textile art.
Sudanese people knew of the technique since the 12th century, according to the ancient Sudanese Manuscripts. Yoruba people in Nigeria and Soninke and Wolof people in Senegal also practiced the technique but replaced beeswax with cassava starch or rice paste.
“I wanted to explore handmade batik. A lot of fabric today is machine-made. This fabric is my canvas. It’s like a painting. I take that piece and turn it into clothing. A lot of my pieces turn into functional art that way.”
Nunu’s go-to fabric is all-natural, often locally sourced cotton and linen purchased from Addisu Gebaye Weavers Association. She’s found synthetic fabric doesn’t work well but handspun and handwoven fabric absorbs dye well. She’s used machine-made cotton or silk but found these fabrics don’t respond as well as handwoven textile.
The beeswax used in her batik is also locally sourced from honey farmers. Beeswax is traditionally used to outline the sections of the fabric the artist wants to protect from the dye. The dye is a non-toxic eco-friendly fabric dye. “One thing I’d like to change in my process is to use less water. Fabric dying takes a lot of water. I know these things have to be sustainable. I’m finding ways of recycling the water but it’s going to take time. Hopefully, when I scale up and have a bigger studio it will be better.”
Nunu employs a simple stamping technique to create some of the patterns but primarily directly hand-paints designs onto the fabric. “My focus is painting, just like an art piece. It’s more labor-intensive but my interest is that. When I create a piece there’s only one of it. It’s unique that way.”
It could take 2-4 weeks to produce one fabric and Nunu employs one full-time and one part-time assistant she hopes will start their own business making batik once they leave her workshop.
The designs on these batiks have some elements that can distinguish the Ethiopian inspirations. Some patterns like the cross, the Saba eyes/face or the Axum obelisk are visible but Nunu has abstracted these symbols, simplifying and adding a contemporary feel to the images. Some designs are influenced by pan-Africanism, a perspective she says is important to her. There are geometric designs identifiable as distinctly African. The color schemes are bright and eye-catching while other items are sleek and edgy.
“I have found the best way it works is to surrender to the process. Not too much planning. That’s really when my best work comes out. It’s really hard to do that but I have to trust the process.”
Textile art has been a part of Ethiopian history for centuries. Whether it’s the traditional hand weaving technique of shimena or the intricate designs of tibeb, designing patterns on fabric is old. More contemporary iterations are evident in the vibrant and powerful landscape crochet and spinning of Meron Hailu and the mesmerizing cotton-spinning of Konjit Seyoum and the social and political commentary of Kirubel Melke in his jean-fabric collages.
The transition of making these unique pieces of textile art into wearable clothes was daunting for Nunu. “Turning textile into things women will wear was difficult to me. I don’t have a fashion background. I know what I like and what I want to wear but doing it for other women was very foreign to me.”
This realization led to a partnership with Yefikir Design. Designer Fikirte Addis accepted batik from Nunu and created 4 simple designs that would highlight the unique designs of the fabric. Ethiopian Batik has been used to make scarves, bags, floor-length dresses, and coats.
“Fikirte is an amazing designer. She has a zero-waste design philosophy. That’s something I’ve learned from her. She’s conscientious in terms of cutting things out.”
As fast fashion has engulfed our markets, it’s become harder to find affordable and sustainable clothes in Ethiopia. But Nunu says there’s hope yet.
“As a consumer who goes out shopping, I think there’s a lot of talent here. There are great designers, especially for people working in a place where resources are limited. Their work is phenomenal. There are many young women doing brilliant stuff making traditional fabric more contemporary.” Nunu especially appreciates the works of African Mosaic as a strong institution supporting and educating young designers as well as the works of designers like Kunjina and Haymanot Honelign. But she wonders if there’s a big market where their work will be appreciated.
“People want the branded stuff like Chanel and Gucci rather than invest in local designers. No one really knows batik here so I think it’s my job to educate people too. Shimena doesn’t get a big reaction from customers here. People take it for granted. That’s what makes it really exciting to me though. Getting the organic cotton, the spinning and weaving, knowing how many hands it’s touched — it’s exciting.”
Traditional shemanes are often undervalued. Underpaid and underappreciated, their jobs are gradually being replaced by machines and cheap manufacturing methods. Traditional fabric will eventually become harder to purchase as cheaper items will be produced in Asian factories. This practice is already growing and is likely to worsen in the future if traditional weavers and their craft are not respected enough. Nunu often works with Tibeb Shema Works, a producer-owned social enterprise located in Bahirdar that produces various handspun and traditionally woven fabric. “These are the resources we need to use. Why buy other fabric that’s not as high quality when you can find it made right here?” she says.
The textile industry has been growing in the past few years as markets opened to foreign investment and brought giant factories that often supply to popular brands in the west like H&M and Gap. The poor working conditions and high turnover rate are well recorded in these industrial parks but these factories have continued to produce work without the necessary government regulations to ensure worker safety and wellbeing. The products produced in these industrial parks are not available for local consumers, instead, they’re exported to international markets. The utilization of local resources to the benefit of people in Ethiopia should be a primary concern for the Ethiopian Investment Commission and other bodies facilitating the entry of these foreign companies.
Nunu’s textile art was initially met with confusion as consumers couldn’t fathom what to do with the fabric. Turning batik into clothes illustrated the various uses of the fabric and customers have been more receptive since. “Ethiopian customers are changing fast. Customers have taken to it in just the span of a year,” she explains.