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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Tutsi Basketry

Given the impact of African figurative sculpture on the history of Western art, this dimension of regional expression has greatly overshadowed decorative arts. More recently, the aesthetic achievements demonstrated by artists creating artifacts of everyday use have gained recognition among fine-arts collectors in the West. Combining functionality, exacting skills, and visually dazzling graphic elements, the wide range of basketry artifacts created by elite Tutsi women from Rwanda and Burundi represent the apogee of refinement exemplified by works in the Museum’s collection.

In both Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, woven basketry receptacles and architectural elements constituted the most widespread form of artistic expression. The variety of grasslike plants that served as the primary medium for such constructions was abundant throughout the region’s volcanic mountainous landscape. In Rwandan society, fiber items were key tools for farming activities, providing the necessary elements in the construction of granaries, beehives, or fishnets. Harvested crops were traditionally stored in large baskets whose shapes and sizes were customized for specific types of grains. Cattle-raising was one of the main sources of income for most Rwandans. A shepherd’s equipment included a milk jar covered by a basketry lid. The shelves that held these were also decorated with ornamental tapestries made of woven fibers. Fibers were also the prevalent component of clothing for farmers and members of the aristocratic elite alike until the 1920s, when imported textiles began to replace the fibers of traditional attire.

Among the Tutsi elite, basketry-related tasks were gender-specific. Men were responsible for building dwellings, granaries, fences, and other large-scale fiber-based structures. Women created more refined woven artifacts, such as the floor mats, baskets, and wall panels represented in the Museum’s collection. Basketry weaving was a communal activity which occurred during recreational evening gatherings. Accompanied by the sound of music performed by a Tutsi harpist, women dedicated their time to embroidery and bead-making as well as basketry. Decorative architectural elements such as woven basketry “tapestries,” space dividers, and mats were created on such occasions. They filled Tutsi domestic interiors, covering them from floor to ceiling and creating a visually vibrant arrangement of contrasting black-and-white patterns. Finely woven miniature baskets featured similar variations of decorative patterns alternating black and red dye with the natural gold fiber. Such intimate-sized baskets were made primarily to be offered as gifts and had no common usage besides storage of precious objects such as the pipe of the master of the house, beads, or amulets.

Fibers, Technique, and Patterns
Plants such as bamboo, grass, cane, reed, raffia, and banana leaves constituted the raw materials of most Tutsi fiber artifacts. To create the characteristic geometric patterns that graphically decorated these fibers, Tutsi basketry makers artfully balanced natural black and red pigments with the natural pale gold of the grass. Black dye was derived from the black sap obtained from boiling banana flowers. The red dye was similarly extracted from the root and seeds of the urukamgi plant. Works created after the 1930s often present a wider range of colors from dyes acquired through importation.

The motifs created had specific names, and their repertoire was rich and varied. During the 1950s, Marcel Pauwels, a Belgian missionary who resided in Rwanda, sought the help of renowned Tutsi historian Abbé Alexis Kagame to carefully record existing motifs, their names and meaning, providing us with an invaluable source of information on the Tutsi graphic system. Pauwels’ research allows us to identify by name the following patterns that appear on works in the Museum’s collection: alternating black-and-white triangles on horizontal bands, a pattern known as isimbi (“cowrie shells”) (1978.412.326a,b); narrower triangles, alternating in black and white, a pattern called itana (“tip of an arrow”) (1978.412.327a,b); a black-and-white checkerboard motif known as umukebo (derived from the verb “to cut”) (2007.186); and, specific to architectural elements, ikibero (“the thigh”) (2010.127) and ishobe (“the transversal line”) (2011.6).

Specific tools were used for the creation of basketry works. Most important were the iron lancet uruhindu, used for cutting and piercing; a small knife, umshyo; and urwabya, a small earthenware vase containing water to keep the fibers moist.

Weaving methods varied greatly depending on the type of item created. For igiseke baskets, the vegetal fibers were mounted on a stitched spiral frame (1978.412.326a,b; 1978.412.327a,b). In the case of two-sided panels, the igihisi method allowed for the creation of works with a frame and a cover. The structural frame was a panel of interwoven bamboo strips, while the decorative cover was made of several layers of reeds, most often in natural and dyed black color, affixed with thin raffia or sisal fibers to define the desired motif (2010.127).

Rwanda’s traumatic social upheaval of the 1990s led to the destruction of many early works that reflect the technical refinement evident in works in the Museum’s collection. A recent revival has spurred the creation of workshops throughout Rwanda dedicated to the production of baskets and other crafts.