Women Artists From Rwanda

Most talks about women representation in Rwanda often revolve around the 64%, now 67.5% of parliamentary seats that women occupy. Yes, this political agenda based on gender equity has permitted most women to set foot in the elite positions, but apart from the pride that comes from belonging to a country that set a world record with the highest women representation in parliament, what else do ordinary women get from this?

How does this translate into women having access to other fields which have always been male-dominated, like Visual Art?

Rwandan women have been involved in art-making throughout history. Rwandan women’s role can easily be traced in the most remarkable artistic production of ancient Rwanda like baskets (uduseke, inkangara), bedding mats (ibirago), panels that decorated royal walls, and other traditional objects that have always been part of the Rwandan culture for centuries. However, these women in the decorative arts have always been regarded as artisans making crafts, not as artists, and so even nowadays their works are only used as home decor but not worth the walls of the few art museums and national galleries we have in Rwanda.

Apart from this wickerwork and weaving tradition that had been passed down across generations of women, which have been unfortunately dismissed as craft; women had not been able to access any other art education until 1987 when the first girls were admitted into Ecole Artisanale de NYUNDO that was founded in 1952 and officially recognized as a school of art in 1963. [sing along: Imibare ni isomo rikomeye – okay, let me help you with the math] yes, it took 35 years for girls to be admitted.

How many Rwandan girls graduated from this art school and entered the art world? Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell because there are no art history records on contemporary women artists and their productions. Women who graduated from the art school also faced challenges in gaining recognition as it was difficult for them to find platforms to nurture their talents, exhibit, and profile themselves as artists. So, one can say that there have been many great and interesting women artists, but they remain insufficiently investigated and/or appreciated.

The majority of Rwandan visual artists who have prominence are men. It is only recently that we have started seeing women artists in exhibitions. And shockingly, women representation at Rwanda Art Museum currently stands at 8% only.

Some women found this underrepresentation in the mainstream art frustrating and decided to embark on a journey of changing the game for themselves. Few of them have been trying to organize women artist exhibitions, mostly on International Women’s Day, but finding a space was a challenge and so few women artists would participate.

After seeing this need for visibility for women artists, at the beginning of this year, Rwandan women artists in partnership with Institute of National Museums of Rwanda and Goethe Institut collaborated to organize a three months group exhibition under the theme “MESSAGES OF RWANDAN WOMEN ARTISTS- EACH FOR EQUAL” showcasing the works of living and deceased Rwandan women artists and international women artists living and working in Rwanda at Rwanda Art Museum -Kanombe.

This website is a permanent digital space for Rwandan womxn artists to showcase their artworks.

(text by Fabiola Uwera Rutamu on 6 in the Eve – May 23, 2020)