A Chat With Rwanda's Imigongo Artist Kayiranga

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Meet Emmanuel Kayiranga

Emmanuel Kayiranga is one of the most talented Rwandan artisans making Imigongo, a traditional art form unique to Rwanda — and definitely worth exploring on a visit to the country. It consists of beautiful black and white, although sometimes colorful, paintings crafted from dried cow dung. The designs are distinctly geometrical and provide a local Rwandan touch.

The first Imigongo paintings date back to the 18th century. Today, this art form is thriving with both locals and foreigners alike purchasing Imigongo to hang on their walls. This is helping generate the well-needed and deserved income for Imigongo artists to support their families.

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Black & White Imigongo

Nowadays, like in the past, the paintings are most often made by artisan women in villages near the border with Tanzania. In recent years, although remaining very few in numbers, some men have started engaging in the production of this traditional art form too. Emmanuel Kayiranga is one of them.

Here is his story…

Kayiranga is now 31 years old. Son of Rwandan refugees, he was born in Tanzania in the small town of Ngara in Kagera Region. There, he lived in a Rwandan settlement. There was no school to attend, and as his parents were farmers, they were happy to have Kayiranga help with the cows.

When he was 12, he moved to Rwanda in a village close to the Tanzanian border. There, he had no more cows to take care of. As much as farming was his only opportunity in Tanzania, in Rwanda he had other alternatives. Following his friends who had started school, Kayiranga entered primary school and graduated when he was 18.

After graduation, his parents could not afford sending him to school for further studies, so he decided to look for an alternative activity and learned Imigongo. On top of finding it an easy art to learn, Kayiranga found the paintings to be beautiful. As they are part of his Rwandan culture, he also felt an additional incentive to keep his country’s traditions alive, a very respectable and noble aim.

At first, there was not too much of a market, but he would still earn enough to cover the costs of health insurance for the family, food and rent. That being said, he still did not have enough to buy his own house, nor to rent or buy the necessary workspace to alleviate the issue of bad weather. Indeed, as cow dung needs a day to dry, without any indoor space, rain makes it impossible to practice this art.

Little by little, he is now trying to improve his living standards as well as those of this two kids, his wife and his parents who are now old. He dreams that one day he will be able to start his own large-scale Imigongo business, providing jobs to at least 100 people in the area.

Until recently, however, with a missing market, no workspace and a lack of income, he had been in no position to move forward in life.

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Emmanuel Kayiranga at Haute I baso’s shop in Kigali

But since March 2015, Kayiranga has been selling his pieces to Haute I baso at their small shop located in Kigali. In the light of this recent collaboration, he is hoping that things will change for the best.

Haute I baso: An Ethical Fashion Brand

Haute I baso is an ethical fashion brand designing high quality local products inspired by Rwandan culture with a global twist.

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Haute I baso. Photo Courtesy of Candy Basomingera

How The Collaboration Works

Haute I baso is in charge of designing every new product, with Kayiranga implementing the designs. At the end of each month, Kayiranga gets paid up front for each piece that he brings to the shop. The pieces are always original, with Haute I baso aiming to make more functional and innovative items in Imigongo-style. So far, in addition to the more classic paintings, Kayiranga has also sold picture frames, and is now working on making mirror frames.

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Haute I baso’s Imigongo Picture Frames Made by Kayiranga

Candy Basomingera, Haute I baso’s co-founder, admits that Imigongo is one of her favorite Rwandan art forms. She also thinks that Kayiranga offers the highest quality Imigongo around town, professional services and on-time delivery. As such, she is keen on working with Kayiranga for the long run and is looking forward to further collaborations. This is great for Kayiranga, as the shop provides him the market he was always hoping to find, the space to showcase his work, the opportunity to sell for higher and fairer prices, and a well-deserved international exposure.

Sharing His Art

“I would love to teach young people how to make Imigongo and show them how to use it as decoration. This is our culture. We can both make money and keep our traditions alive!” Kayiranga says.

Until now, he remembers the first time he made Imigongo and sold the painting as the happiest day of his life. He hopes that the youth of today will understand the value of this art and keep practicing, as, in his opinion, this contributes greatly in making Rwanda’s culture rich. Moreover, visitors to the country should keep an eye out for this art form, and if possible make a trip to Haute I baso to support the local artisans of Rwanda.

By Sarine Arslanian

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