The Work of Art
Folk Artists in the 21st Century
BY CARMELLA PADILLA
As refugees, [Joy] Ndungutse and [Janet] Nkubana were among the lucky. Both educated and employed in Uganda, they had no experience of Rwanda’s dark days, though their parents’ years of sacrifice and struggle had left an indelible impression. Even as their mother was disconnected from her homeland, she gave the sisters a cherished gift of Rwandan tradition, teaching them to weave colorful coiled baskets from natural fibers and grasses in the style made and used in Rwanda for centuries. Their father sold the baskets at a Ugandan resort where he worked, supplementing his meager income and giving the sisters a proud role in helping to feed their family.
The sisters took part in a hallowed Rwandan rite of passage in which young girls weave their way into adulthood. They learned the history of the craft, how women once used small baskets to pass messages among themselves, how the most skilled weavers produced their finest baskets to adorn the king’s palace. With every colored fiber they connected to every concentric coil, they understood that, despite their differences, basket making bonds Rwanda’s women together.
Ndungutse’s and Nkubana’s exile ended as the devastation of the [1994 Rwanda] genocide called them home. The sisters opened a hotel, where displaced women and children often came to beg. When women began bringing baskets to trade for food, they opened a gift shop. Seeing how selling the baskets brought hope and self-respect to women, the sisters considered that a basket making business could help shape Rwanda’s future. […]
“The women of Rwanda were already trained in basket weaving as a traditional skill,” says Ndungutse. “I knew that empowering women with income-generating skills would empower a whole community.”
The idea took root beneath [a] tree in Gitarama as the sisters encouraged village women to join a new cooperative, Gahaya Links, which would train rural women to weave and design baskets for the modern market. The cooperative promoted women’s economic empowerment by ensuring fair wages, safe working environments, and respect for cultural identity. Above all, it promoted a principle of unbiased cooperation—asking women to look beyond ethnicity and to share the skills and resources that would rebuild their country.
To those who resisted, Nkubana said: “Don’t we breathe the same air? Speak the same language? Don’t we all love our children? Let us just weave and try to put the past behind us. When we weave, we weave together.”
Today, more than four thousand women across Rwanda have heeded Nkubana’s wise words to become members of Gahaya Links, an alliance of rural cooperatives. Now an incorporated export company, it partners with Macy’s, Anthropologie, Full Circle Exchange, Women for Women International, Bluma Project, and others to take Rwandan baskets to markets worldwide. […]
While Rwanda’s legacy of violence cannot be forgotten, it is remembered by the basket makers of Gahaya Links as the opportunity that is helping to create a legacy of peace. Today in markets worldwide, the baskets of Gahaya Links are known as Peace Baskets. In art and in action, the baskets stand as powerful symbols of women who are weaving the best parts of their history into a better future. n
Excerpted from The Work of Art: Folk Artists in the 21st Century, by Carmella Padilla, foreword by Indrasen Vencatachellum, principal photography by John Bigelow Taylor, Judith Cooper Haden, David Moore, and Bob Smith. Published by IFAA Media and distributed by the Museum of New Mexico Press. 264 pages with 160 color images. Clothbound, $60; paperbound, $29.95. Available first at the 2013 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market or www.folkartmarket.org, and later through bookstores, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation Shops, and at mnmpress.org.
Carmella Padilla’s books include El Rancho de las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Ciénega Valley; Low ’n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico; The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest; and Conexiones: Connections in Spanish Colonial Art. Padilla helped launch the International Folk Art Market in 2004, and is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.