By Elizabeth Trapp
In the village of Rutongo, in the hills high above the Rwandan capital of Kigali, a collective of women embroiders lively, luminous landscapes that chronicle Rwandan life.
More than 30 such works are on view in the exhibit “Pax Rwanda: Embroideries of the Women of Savane Rutongo,” in the Northwood ARTSpace near the Ohio State University campus.
Pax, or peace, is a loaded word regarding Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people died in the central African nation during the 1994 genocide. Most of them were of the Tutsi tribe, killed by the Hutu majority. Almost 20 years later, the more than 20 women who create the embroidered works are both Hutu and Tutsi, working side by side and often on the same piece.
The embroideries are designed by Christiane Rwagatare, a Rwandan who spent much of her early life outside her homeland. While studying in Europe, she learned traditional embroidery techniques. She returned to Rwanda after the genocide and established the Savane Rutongo workshop, training her countrywomen to embroider her designs. The women develop the colors, textures and patterns for the pieces on which they work.
Several works share the theme of the workshop itself: women working together to support their community.
Wheat Harvesters shows five women at work in the fields against a majestic backdrop of hazy mountains. The use of several colors of thread in one stitch makes the field come alive with the illusion of grain moving in a breeze.
Other scenes depict traditional dances, community gatherings and even the process of voting.
Also on view are individual wildlife portraits.
Juliana Meehan, a New Jersey curator who put the exhibition together, was traveling in Rwanda when she discovered the Savane Rutongo workshop. She was struck by the personal stories of the women.
During the 1994 genocide, Meehan said, “The team leader was just about to get married (when) her young man was killed.
“Others are widows, some of them have men in prison, and they work together to feed their children and their grandchildren. … These are self-taught artists who deserve recognition.”
The women in the workshop continue to produce the embroideries. Since 2011, the exhibit has been shown in several U.S. locations, mostly on the East Coast.
The exhibit’s visit to Columbus is sponsored by Rwanda Women in Action, a central Ohio organization that helps refugee women adjust to life here.