Layers of Agency explores various prisms of Indigenous reality and ecological consciousness from the past, present, and future from a cohort of Rwandan Women Artists and Designers. One can easily imagine how gender, socioeconomics, environmentalism, and cultural presentational agency can be stifled and appropriated in western society. However, what does it mean to experience an identical plight in one’s own homelands and by one’s own peoples? Examining mechanisms that embody the continuous and historical outcry for agency can be conceptually visualized through the “Radiant Thought” that out of the garbage grew a tree. The tree is known as SHE, and SHE is the woman body, the bearer of life before conception, and the ruler of intersectional destiny.
Five collaborative and individual bodies of work inform the varying facets of Layers of Agency, and were manifested through an 18-month virtual fellowship administered by the Soul of Nations Foundation’s Indigenous International: Green Architecture Project in Kigali, Rwanda. Indigenous International is the umbrella program created through the Soul of Nations Foundation’s Indigenous Arts Expansion Initiative which is aimed to help connect Indigenous and BIPOC communities with boundary-pushing cultural and artistic experiences around the world. Throughout this 18-month exchange program, Fellows collectively engaged in a series of virtual exchanges that focused on environmental stability, feminism, and Indigenous futurism. These organic discussions helped the artists to envision how their cultures and heritages intersect within the framework of several issues pertaining to the access of housing, urban planning, environmental policy, and traditional architectural representation in the popular imagination.
The collection of works that culminate this virtual exhibition are entitled: Renaissance, Structure Maintenance, Our Home Products, Green Haven, and Planted in Fertile Soil. Women Artists, Designers and Mentors involved in this exhibition and exchange project include: Kakizi Jemima Akimanizanye, Angella Ilibagiza, Louise Kanyange, Ingabire Gretta, Neza Shemsa, Bora Sylvie, Melverna Aguilar, Madeline Lamb, Jolie Muhimpundu, Natacha Muziramakenga, Orlane Mwanayera, Isheja Cheryl, Nanibah Chacon, Noella Nibakuze, Christelle Muhimpundu, and Claudine Nishimwe.
Support for Layers of Agency and the Indigenous International: Green Architecture Project in Kigali, Rwanda was provided by the Soul of Nations Foundation, Soul Center for the Arts, MASS Design Group, Climax Visual, the Republic of Rwanda, the Rwanda Art Museum, the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy, and the U.S. Department of State.
Angella Ilibagiza, Green Haven, 2021, mixed media.
Green Haven is an embodiment of a safe, environmentally friendly, and inclusive community. Every human has a right to a decent and affordable home, among other human basic needs. With modernization, housings have changed but the basic need and purpose of ‘home’ remain the same – a safe and convenient place to eat, sleep and live. Even so, some people cannot access affordable decent housing in the formal market and end up in squatter and informal settlements, which are perceived by authorities as aesthetically unpleasing.
To keep their areas of jurisdiction clean and orderly, authorities undertake slum clearance policies that displace the poor to make way for renewal and upgrade projects that target and cater to the needs of the affluent and wealthy. The poor do not secure any place in the new redevelopments because of high costs of living and this limits them from accessing, enjoying, and benefitting from them or restricts them from moving back in altogether. However, such redevelopments shouldn’t happen at the expense of the poor.
The Rwandan population is growing and this calls for urban planning and housing policies to manage urbanization. It is important that the housing policies be oriented towards environmentally-conscious practices – through the application of principles of green architecture sourced from Rwanda’s traditional green architecture – to curtail the consequences of climate change. The use of recyclable and locally sourced and available materials that are more environmentally friendly allows the opportunity to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, while also making substantial economic savings.
Every human life is (and should be) sacrosanct. Urban planning and housing policies should include everyone, regardless of status. This calls for the integration of pro-poor development initiatives in the context of equitable development where the poor and their needs and rights are given attention, incorporated in planning strategies, and addressed; to build just and inclusive communities.
Bora Sylvie & Louise Kanyange, Structure Maintenance, 2021, mixed media installation.
Structure Maintenance is an installation consisting of modelings and mixed media. It is divided into a three-phase style of perspectives from past, present, and future.
Past: Isolated settlements
Traditionally, Rwandese peoples resided in a great physical distance and in a grandiose space. Structure Maintenance demonstrates this historical reference presenting models of the traditional houses, the Duab, on an increased scale to project the dominance of the main housing style of the time.
Present: Rural settlement
Structure Maintenance also depicts the current Rwandan housing crisis and how our, nowadays, houses are being constructed in a small space with the highest density of populations. This description is displayed through many models on a reduced scale.
Future: Looking toward the sky
Reminiscing the past while being plagued by the present will help to inform a brighter and more community-driven future. Structure Maintenance portrays this his future by suspending the various housing model in the atmosphere.
Louise Kanyange, Our Home Products, 2021, mixed media.
Our Home Products exemplifies how Rwandans can create many different interior design products from cows in the country. This project was designed after participating in a workshop led in part by MASS Design Group and understanding how significant cows are in Rwandan culture. Historically, cows were used to give milk and meat. They were also used as dowries during marriages, and their horns were used for making sounds of signals and also utilized as storage. Milk was transformed into oils, and cow skins were transformed into clothes, whereas, nowadays, cow skin is transformed into shoes, bags, and belts.
Our Home Products depicts how furniture and other items such as doors, chairs, beds, windows can be produced from cows and used as interior designs of houses. The body of work is an abstract painting that is made with series of two sets of stretched canvas and displays an image of a cow and products that are produced and processed through it.
Kakizi Jemima Akimanizanye, Planted in Fertile Soil, 2021, sculpture: aluminum, wood, metal wire.
Planted in Fertile Soil highlights Rwandan women’s contribution to ancient architecture. Wickerwork was a domestic activity that was specifically reserved for women and girls, consequently, most of the woven objects traditionally used in Rwanda were made by women. This installation is made of wires, can waste, and woven partitions which are traditionally known as Insika.
Wires symbolize the strength of Rwandan women, whereas the can-waste call for the need to recycle and mobilize capacity building in waste management so as to reduce air and water pollution in today’s world. Insika were used as a form of mural decoration and room dividers that served to support and protect the roof. Insika with this particular decorative motif called ABASHI symbolizes growth as its forms depict.
Culture can inspire modernization, and I believe that Modern Cultural architecture is the way to keep our Rwandan culture alive and to protect the work that was done by our foremothers and forefathers. Despite Rwandan women’s important role in Architectural design before colonialism, Architecture is currently a male-dominated field in Rwanda. This concept of Insika calls for the need to investigate and appreciate the source of all the cultural symbols, design techniques, and decorative motifs being applied in existing culture-inspired objects and architecture.
Representation matters. We are constantly inspired to do something when we see others like us doing it. I want Rwandans, especially women in architecture and those who aspire to become architects, to look up to our ancient Rwandan women as role models because having role models is an incredibly effective way to encourage one to stand out and make a different choice.
In conclusion, Planted in Fertile Soil seeks to demonstrate how a soil fertilized with gender equity and zero plastic pollution can lead to the growth and blooming of women and everyone around them.
Kakizi Jemima Akimanizanye, Ingabire Gretta, and Neza Shemsa, Renaissance, 2021, sculpture: metal wire, plastic and aluminum.