It’s been a great first year at UCLA!
After visiting the imigongo art cooperative in the Eastern Province, my museum colleagues and I continued on the road toward Tanzania to visit Rusumo Falls. The waterfall is located on the Kagera River at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania. It is a truly beautiful place with a sad history.
Rusumo Falls was the site where the German and Belgian entered Rwanda. During the genocide, many refugees crossed the bridge over the falls to flee Rwanda for Tanzania as victims’ bodies floated down the river beneath them. After the genocide, bodies were found stranded on the rocks at the falls. A small memorial stone pays tribute to the victims and a new bridge was recently built to accommodate the transport traffic.
“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.
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.
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)
- 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.
- 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.
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.
This past Saturday, I organized a workshop with professional photographers and filmmakers to edit Rwandan artists’ photography and video submissions to the 10th Bamako Encounters exhibit. The four-hour long workshop took place at The Office, a collaborative workspace that is dedicated to promoting arts and culture in Rwanda. Seventeen artists working in photography, video, and new media participated. Each artist met with a mentor at a different workstation. The mentors, who are professionals in photography or video and who are not eligible to apply to the biennale, gave feedback to the Rwandan artists on their projects, edited works, and will continue to meet with artists to help with submissions until the deadline. Artists also met with a writing specialist (Fulbright Research or Teaching Fellows) who helped edit CVs, write artist biographies, and draft critical texts about the work. The workshop was organized in partnership with the Institut Francais of Rwanda, The Office, and the Fulbright Program.
Overall, I was very happy with the turn out and how the workshop went. It was great to see international artists working so closely together, sharing ideas, and getting inspired to develop more artistic and experimental projects. I also felt that it was important to plan a workshop where there would be lots of hands-on collaboration, not just lectures and presentations, as well follow-up with participants after the workshop. In addition to assigning each artist a mentor, I am planning an exhibit in May to show participant’s final projects to the public in Kigali. I am also hoping to coordinate a lens-based media, technical workshop for artists from the Great Lakes Region with the help of Bisi Silva, the Artistic Director of the 10th Bamako Encounters. Our goal: to have the region represented at the Biennale!
This is a link to an article in The New Times encouraging artists to apply!
Thank you to all of the artists who participated, the media specialists and mentors who offered their expertise and advice, the writing specialists who listened and wrote down each artists story. Thank you all for your time, excitement, and for your willingness to learn from and help each other! A special thanks to the very talented Crystal Randazzo who coordinated the workshop with me, reached out to her networks of professionals, and offered lots of technical and organizational advice to make this happen.
Below are photos that I took that day!
“You see, I am an old man now and I grew up in this country and I know everything about this country. There is no need to tell you how art was before and how it came to develop because, at first, art had no value at all and people thought that one cannot survive on art. I am telling you this…Since I was young, I have been surviving on art.”
-Pascal Bushayija, Visual Artist, Nyamirambo, Kigali
Visual artist Pascal “Bush” Bushayija is known in Rwanda for his mixed-media paintings depicting Rwanda’s traditional culture. His style is easy to identify: simple compositions of faceless figures or cultural objects that are formed out of blocks of color and set within a bright background. Bushayija outlines his designs with pencil and fills in the shapes with paint and natural materials to create shades and tones. Bushayija typically uses sawdust from local trees that he collects from the floors of carpentry studios. Different tree types produce different colors. The tree types that Bushayija uses most often are called ribuyu, which can be found in the DRC, a multicolored umusave, which is from Rwanda, and a tree that is yellow in color from Uganda. Other artists in Rwanda imitate Bushayija’s style, but few have mastered his high-quality, mixed-media technique. Bushayija typically paints figures who are intertwined and appear to be caught in motion: they are dancing or drumming, holding babies, cradling pots, or carrying baskets on their heads. Bushayija chooses to make the figures faceless so that his works can be a general representation of Rwanda’s traditional culture. He also jokes that the anonymity keeps people from claiming to be in the painting and him from getting mixed up in lawsuits.
Bushayija was born in Gisenyi, Rwanda in 1957 and started making art in primary school when the only visual art that existed in Rwanda was imigongo, the cow dung paintings. Bushaijya’s parents and teachers did not value art and punished him when they saw him drawing, which was all the time, so Bushayija began to draw in secret. Bushayija’s drawings helped him to concentrate on what he was learning in school. He did well and was promoted to advanced classes. His love for art grew stronger.
When he finished primary school, he found out that there was a secondary school for art not too far from his home. Ecole d’art Nyundo in Gisenyi was, and still is, the only art school in Rwanda. One day, Bushayija visited the school and, without telling his parents, interviewed with the teachers so that he could be admitted to the school and study there. He passed the interview and then had to figure out how he would pay for the school fees. Bushayija’s father was a doctor and wanted his son to be a doctor too. With the help of his uncle, Bushayija convinced his father to let him go to the school and pay the fees. To show his parents that art was good for him, he started paying his own school fees after his third year of school. He did this with the money that he made from selling his artwork and by helping the school with projects commissioned by the government and big companies. Pascal was proud to pay his own school fees and to buy and wear expensive clothes and shoes that even his dad could not afford to buy at the time.
After graduating high school, Pascal worked at a tea factory nearby to the school, making advertisements. He did this for four years and was then asked by the directors to return to the art school as a teacher. He worked at the school for 11 years and taught six subjects in the arts.The other teachers were mainly European and the directors hired artists and experts from abroad to visit the school so that the teachers and students could continue to learn new skills and not fall behind. In his fifth year of teaching, he encouraged the school directors to admit girls into the school. He taught up until the 1994 genocide, during which the school was looted and closed down temporarily.
In 1996, Bushayija moved from Gisenyi to Kigali and wanted to figure out a way to work as an independent artist. He began organizing exhibits with the other few artists who were working in Kigali at the time, including fellow Rwandese artist Epaphrodite Binamungu. Most of his clients today are Rwandan, which is unusual because in Rwanda most of the art buyers are expatriates, foreigners, and tourists. Bushayija says that Rwandan clients buy his work as gifts for weddings and other social functions.
Bushayija is one of Rwanda’s older artists and is well-respected for paving the way for the younger generation of artists. Bushayija continues to visit the art school near his hometown as a guest teacher and to mentor youth. His works can be found in many Rwandan homes, government buildings, the National Art Gallery of Rwanda, and, perhaps most notably, in Bourbon Coffee shops in Kigali, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. He works out of his studio at his home in Nyamirambo, a lively neighborhood in the city of Kigali.
Here are a few tips for how to write an artist bio:
Include where you are from, when you were born, what you are creating, your background in this medium (schooling, past projects, exhibits, awards, publications), what you are working on currently (themes, projects, ideas…), where you live now.
Write in the 3rd person.
Questions to Ask When Writing a Bio:
Who am I? How can I help you? How did I get here? Why can you trust me?
Sample Short Bio (1,000 Characters or less):
2. I’m a professional photographer with more than a dozen years of experience working in documentary, nonprofit, commercial, and portrait photography. I primarily work with nonprofits and international organizations to share their stories through photography and multimedia narratives. My work frequently focuses on women’s empowerment, agriculture, and education. My goal is vibrant, honest, and emotional photography that resonates with any audience. I love creating stories that deserve to be told and living a life of adventure with my husband and our furry Zambian cat.