by Kate Dewmartin
In a small mountain top village, up a dirt road from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, 15 women are creating some of the world's most exquisite embroideries.
This remarkable collection caught my eye following an article on the WePresent website, which told the story of how an American teacher named Juliana Meehan spotted the embroideries during a visit to Kigali. Juliana's fascination with the pieces lead to her meeting Christiane Rwagatare, the artistic director of the workshop, and visiting the studio where the embroideries are made by hand. The meeting was fortuitous; Juliana went on to curate several exhibitions across the US, and set up the website, PaxRwanda, establishing recognition of the works internationally.
I understand how these pieces could stop you in your tracks. My Grandmother was a lifelong embroiderer and yet I have never seen embroidery before that looks like this. Writing from a grey wintry day in the UK, these vibrant colours are truly a beautiful sight.
The impressive skill of the Rutongo village women was first noticed by Rwagatare in 1997, after she returned to her country from exile. Fifteen craftswomen were chosen to create the embroideries, using the skills they first learned as schoolgirls from Belgian nuns, and the Savane Rutongo-Kabaye workshop was born.
The pieces are large, some spanning 1.5 meters. The women use 3 different coloured threads on one needle, mixing their colours as a painter would mix paint.
Christiane Rwagatare's vision, of a collective that would provide an income for these women and their families in the aftermath of the genocide, has created more than just world-class textile art. It has brought hope and purpose too. The works reflect back the joy, colour and community spirit of Rwandan life and in doing so, the bonds between people are re-woven.
In contrast to the Western world, the work is cooperative and community based; no one individual claims the title of artist. The women simply sign each work as the ‘Savane Rutongo-Kabuye’, reflecting where the pieces are made.
This rejection of individual acclaim is entirely in tune with the culture and sensibilities of the women. There is variation of style, but each piece is constructed within and as a group, from the early drawings to the needlework and the washing, stretching and mounting of the finished piece.
The workshop was founded in the aftermath of the 100-day genocide in 1994, in which 800,000 Tutsis were murdered at the hands of their Hutu neighbours and fellow countrymen. Rwanda was devastated in every sense and left in desperate need of the seeds of regeneration – and hope.
Astonishingly, the Savane Rutongo-Kabuye artists hail from both sides of the Rwandan genocide and many lost husbands and children during the war. Yet they work as a collective – with conviviality. What wisdom there is in this – and what hope for human forgiveness.
The effects of the genocide are felt by each artist and invoked in their work, yet the pieces focus on the richness and beauty of Rwandan landscape, wildlife and the communal life they share. There is a lot of joy and vibrancy to the work, it makes me smile just to look at it.
Thanks to Juliana Meehan, the artworks have now been exhibited in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC.
We can only hope that the UK follows suit...