By Neal Buccino, Senior Public Information Officer
The picture shows a typical scene in Rwanda, filtered through an artist’s eye for elegance and detail. It shows three women carrying baskets on their heads, including one with a quintessential Rwandan design called an agaseke or “peace basket,” a symbol of compassion, gratitude, and friendship, often used to bring gifts to a wedding. At first, it looks like a painting. But up close it turns out to be an embroidery, made from thousands of threads stitched through cloth. Each element of the picture has its own texture: Green and yellow plants are created with thick threads, like tiny ropes. The women’s skin and clothes are made with finer, eyelash-thin threads that glow with sunlight and shadow. You wouldn’t dare touch such an intricate work of art, but the tactile quality is so rich you can almost feel it with your eye.“Transporting Treasures” was one of approximately 45 works on display this past November at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in an exhibit called “Pax Rwanda: Embroideries of the Women of Savane Rutongo-Kibuye.” The exhibit will return to the Bus Terminal in February 2016 for Black History Month. All of the works were made by Rwandan women who survived both sides of that country’s 1994 genocide. “Some are widows, some are daughters, mothers, sisters, sweethearts of the slain; some are the wives of imprisoned perpetrators,” said Juliana Meehan, a New Jersey resident and the exhibit’s American curator. “Rwanda is the size of Maryland, and in the genocide more than 800,000 people were slain. No one was left untouched.” But the women of Savane Rutongo-Kibuye – the name of their art collective, named after two Rwandan towns – prove violence and terror cannot destroy a nation’s culture, nor a people’s love of each other, their land, and their way of life.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal is just one stop in Pax Rwanda’s tour of exhibit spaces across New York, New Jersey, and beyond. But its art display area, which has been previously reported on in this site, provides “a real exposure and visibility that doesn’t exist in your standard galleries and museums,” Meehan said. The world’s busiest bus terminal is a national gateway with more than 110,000 weekday commuters, “the gallery of the people!” Meehan first saw the art collective’s work at a shop in Kigali, Rwanda, as a tourist in 2010. Entranced by these museum-quality embroideries, she spoke with the shop owner, Christiane Rwagatare, and learned of the group’s history.
According to Meehan’s Rutongo Embroideries website, Rwagatare’s family fled Rwanda to escape endemic turmoil. She attended college in Rumania, where she learned European embroidery as a hobby. After the Rwandan genocide she returned to her native country in 1994, and met women who were seeking to earn a living by selling embroidered tablecloths and other items.
Wishing to help Rwanda’s reconstruction, she invited the women to join an artist collective that became Savane Rutongo-Kibuye. She taught them what she knew – including a unique embroidery method that she pioneered herself, using three different-colored threads on the same needle to create intriguing and subtle color effects. Today, the group collectively produces work of exceptional quality to celebrate the daily lives of their people. Meehan’s goal since that first meeting has been to bring these works and their creators to audiences in America. Pax Rwanda has been shown in museums and galleries in Manhattan, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.