Imigongo

“The most important thing is that I remember our elders and the creativity they had.”

Basilice Uwamariya, artist and chairperson of the Kakira Cooperative, who grew up in a home with imigongo designs built into the walls not far from where the art form originated. 

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Imigongo is Rwanda’s only known form of traditional visual art. The geometric designs are created from natural materials, most notably cow dung (pictured above) to make the ridged structure.

A few weeks ago, my museum colleagues and I traveled to an area in the Eastern Province of Rwanda where the art form was founded and talked with women working at a cooperative who make imigongo in the traditional way. Some of the women at the cooperative are genocide survivors and widows from the genocide who are now able to support themselves and their families with the profit they make from their art. Below is some basic information about imigongo and the cooperative. I am hoping to go back soon to follow up on information about the history, process, and meanings that is still not entirely clear to me.

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Prince Kakira, the son of the former King of Gisaka in the Kibungo Province in Southeast Rwanda, founded imigongo in the late 18th and early 19th century, as a form of interior decoration and maintaining hygiene in homes. Before he died around 1805, he taught the art technique to young girls in the area. Today, women at the Kakira Cooperative, which is located about 12 miles from the Rwanda-Tanzania border, make versions of Imigongo using Kakira’s same traditional techniques, natural materials, and meaningful colors and designs. The process:

The Colors: Combinations of Black, Red, and White

  • Burgundy Red: natural soil
  • White: kaolin or soft, white clay.
  • Ochre: clay soil or loam.
  • Shiny black: sap of the aloe plant (ikakarubamba) mixed with the ash from banana peels and the fruit of solanum aculeastrum plant (umutobotobo)

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The Patterns:

  • Curves or straight lines
    • The straight lines are parallel, triangles, waves, diamonds, and parallelograms,
    • Curves are single or double spirals
  • The directions are horizontal, vertical, or diagonals that share a right angle and divide the design into four equal parts.
  • Certain patterns have meanings that reference different things in nature, such as elephants or birds, and each design has a distinct name.

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The Process:

  • Divide the wooden plaque into a equal parts using banana fibers to ensure that the patterns are proportional.
  • Outline the pattern in charcoal
  • Mix dung with wood ash and cow urine and use thumb and forefinger to cover outline with the mixture until the result is three-dimensional and firm, and sticks to the wooden base.
  • Once the dung is dry, cover the edges with yellow-beige layer to ensure the rest of the colors applied will be pure.
  • Apply the colors made from the natural materials listed above and mixed with water.

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Today, most of the imigongo is made on rectangular, wooden plaques that hang on walls rather than as built-in designs on interior walls and structures. The women at the cooperative also create imigongo works that differ from the traditional aesthetic; they depict scenes from Rwanda’s traditional culture out of geometric shapes and they incorporate brighter colors (like blues and greens) by mixing different natural materials together. It is also possible for buyers to commission a work or style of their choice.

The women’s cooperative, which was founded in 2001, is located in the Rusumo district in Kibungo in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. It is open Monday through Saturday: 7:30am-12pm and 2pm-6pm. It takes about  2 hours to get there by car and 3 hours by bus from Kigali.

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