These embroideries portray elements of Rwandan culture, including village activities, materials in the King’s Palace, and traditional dances. Many accurately capture the terrain of this country known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills.” Uniquely Rwandan elements recur throughout, including traditional dress, musical instruments, and objects of daily living such as kitchen utensils and household furniture. Village life takes place in traditional compounds called rugos, their boundaries delineated by carefully woven fences known as asigikare.
Not all of the subject matter here is unique to Rwanda. Some pieces depict typical African subject matter, including portraits, animal life, traditional practices like hair plaiting, and regional objects like Congolese statues.
While the artisans of Savane Rutongo-Kabuye render most scenes realistically, employing warm, muted colors in browns, golds, mingled with the greens and blues of the countryside, even these feature vibrant colors in the clothing and accoutrements of Rwandan living, both modern and traditional. Some pieces are highly stylized and modernistic, utilizing bold purples, hot pinks, and turquoises.
Brief History of Rwanda
The Kingdom of Rwanda began around 1000 A.D. Its boundaries shifted and changed many times before becoming what they are today. Rwanda was historically ruled by a king, the mwami, a supreme authority who, until recent times, kept his palace at Nyanza, near Butare in the Southern Province. Rwanda’s modern capital is Kigali. Map of Rwanda
Most Rwandans earn their living, directly or indirectly, from agriculture. A typical family farm is about 2 1/2 acres in size. The soil is fertile, especially in the river valleys and in the volcanic regions of the northwest. Important food crops grown in Rwanda include sorghum, plantains, sweet potatoes, cassava, potatoes, beans, corn, sugar, and plantains. Coffee and tea are also important crops and are a principal export, as are quinine and pyrethrum. In recent years, wheat has become an increasingly important crop. The wheat harvesters in this embroidery are all women, illustrating the important position women play in Rwandan agriculture.
Three Women Weaving Baskets
Basketry plays an important part in Rwandan life, for both artistic and utilitarian purposes. Rwandans create baskets out of sisal fibers, sweet grass, and banana leaves, and dye them with natural plant pigments, tea leaves, or commercial dyes. Artistic basketry is practiced mainly by women. Some decorative baskets are imbued with traditional patterns that have been used for centuries. In addition to serving a decorative purpose, these baskets are used for storing valuables and for other traditional practices. Women and girls create mats, baskets, and decorative panels, including panels for the King’s Palace. Decorative basketry has become an important livelihood for women in present-day Rwanda. This embroidery shows three women weaving traditional baskets. The woman in the center wears a white headband, known as the urugori, which indicates that she is a young married woman who has recently given birth.
The making of utilitarian baskets is practiced by both women and men. Men use basketry techniques to construct large items such as huts and the traditional fence, the igikare. Basket weaving is an important source of income for farmers.