Rutongo Embroideries promotes the unique textile art of “Savane Rutongo-Kibuye,” a collective of talented Rwandan women living in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis. Their workshop was organized by Christiane Rwagatare, a native Rwandan forced into exile by the political turmoil who returned after the genocide. Upon her return, Christiane met a group of women trying to earn a living by selling embroidered tablecloths and other small linens in the village of Rutongo, outside Rwanda’s capital of Kigali. Recognizing their skill and desiring to help in her country’s reconstruction, Christiane conceived the idea of a workshop where, together, they could create full-scale works of greater value. The Savane Rutongo workshop was born. They joined together, putting the events of the past behind them, to work side by side each day in peace and with the hope that their children would have a better future. They recently moved their workshop to the city of Kibuye on the shores of Rwanda’s Lake Kivu, hence the name Savane Rutongo-Kibuye.
Each embroidery is truly a collective process, and for this reason the artisans insist on using the collective name rather than individual signatures for their works. Each piece begins as a pencil drawing sketched on unbleached cotton by Christiane or her niece Giraso Joe Christa. Then, the trained artisans of the Savane Rutongo-Kibuye workshop decide on the colors, textures, shading, and stitching techniques, giving life and vigor to these works with simple cotton thread. Their technique involves loading three threads of different colors onto one needle to achieve subtle blends of color. Only rarely does any one area of an embroidery consist of a single color. In this way, they strive to create with needle and thread what the painter produces with brush and paint. Finally, other women provide the finishing touches of washing and stretching the textile, preparing it for mounting. Savane Rutongo-Kibuye’s compositions are alive with the vibrant life of Rwanda, conveying hope and pride in its culture. Recurring motifs include everyday village life, ancient traditions, and nature—the terrain, animals, and plants of the country known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills.”
Juliana Meehan, the owner of Rutongo Embroideries, first encountered these artists upon visiting Rwanda in 2011 as a tourist. Juliana entered “Mode Savane,” Christiane’s small tourist shop in Kigali, and first beheld the embroideries in this collection. Finding them extraordinary, she promptly bought several of them and later learned the full story of how the works were created. Since returning to the States, Juliana’s goal has been to bring these works to the attention of the American public. She sustains the workshop by regularly purchasing embroideries at equitable prices and exhibiting them, telling the story of the remarkable women who created them. She has curated Pax Rwanda: Embroideries of the Women of Savane Rutongo-Kibuye, a traveling exhibit of these unique works that has been featured at the Museum of African Art of the SMA Fathers in Tenafly, NJ; The Textile Museum in Washington, DC; The Puffin Foundation in Teaneck, NJ; and other art spaces. She hopes to bring the exhibit to more art spaces in the coming years. Selected works are available for sale, and proceeds help to sustain these artisans. Juliana teaches reading and writing to sixth grade students in Bergen County, NJ.