Atelier Rwanda: vegetable fibres and design tradition and innovation.
by Gaddo Morpurgo
“One of Rwanda’s strategies to harmonise social development consists in strengthening its cultural resources, building and integrating foreign technologies with the local know-how.
The challenge lies in dealing with the radical changes globalisation has imposed on certain crucial and fundamental parts of Rwanda’s culture. Throughout the process to further these unavoidable transformations in various areas, there is the imperative need to implement strategies to safeguard the values of cultural tradition and national identity.
Our values can be kept alive as long as they keep on playing a major role in our economy and in our society.
The integration of foreign elements into our way of life requires three strategies:
– A better understanding of our culture and traditions
– A structure and a system for the careful selection of foreign contributions in the search for solutions to our problems
– The creativity of our ancestors, foreign influence and renewal of Rwanda’s current society.
An expression of this creativity is potentially given by the introduction of new craftsmanship techniques. Rwanda’s crafts have undergone many changes because of the massive introduction of European and Asian products. Colonial power and missionaries introduced new ideas in the light of which professions that failed to adapt to the new reality simply disappeared.
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Colonialists, missionaries and Asian merchants introduced new ideas, techniques and professions, and money was introduced as the tool for trading.
These new ideas, under the name of modernity, changed the overall asset of Rwanda’s social and economic life and the Country’s relation with its neighbours. As a consequence, professions that failed to adapt to these multicultural changes started a slow and irreversible decline into oblivion.
This is especially the case for those professions where raw materials were replaced by imported materials or by higher quality finished products.
The manufacturing of certain traditional items began to disappear as Rwanda’s society began to adapt to the new lifestyle, driven by globalisation”.
(Cp. Kanimba Misago Célestin, Directeur de l’Institut des Musées Nationaux du Rwanda)
The ‘Atelier Rwanda’ project focuses on those resources that are still capable of “representing those professions where raw materials were replaced by imported materials or by higher quality finished products” after being channelled towards new project ideas.
We believe, as stated by Kanimba Misago Célestin, one of the greatest experts of Rwanda’s material culture, that “values can be kept alive as long as they keep on playing a major role in our economy and in our society”.
The ‘Tradition and innovation in vegetable fibre design’ exhibition displays the first results of this programme that was set up in 2008 after being prompted by the Soroptimist International organisation, and that in recent years saw the involvement of partners such as the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, the IUAV University of Venice, and the Carlo Buziol Foundation which, in addition to allocating finances, also supervised and coordinated work activities.
Through its first participation in the ‘Biennale di Venezia’, the Republic of Rwanda is showing some of paths that we can follow if we view design as a means to solve together problems that are no longer mine or yours, but ours.
But above all it proves how the project’s culture must redefine its means with respect to the potential of local productive systems. In our case there are various potential relations between craftsmanship and design.
After being set up with the main objective of carrying out a survey to innovate the use of local materials and exploit traditional work methods, over the last two years Atelier Rwanda has started to become more of a research centre for the innovation of design in Africa.
In September of 2009 the research centre, which has headquarters in the ‘Centre d’accueil et de formation San Marco’ of the Kigali Soroptimist in Kanombe, hosted the first workshop on the use of traditional Rwandese work methods to make jewellery and on the use of banana leaves and bark in the production of construction components. Among the results of this initial experience we can point out the innovative MUSA® panel entirely made out of banana wood that allows for the thermal and acoustical damping and isolation of buildings using organic materials, and the first use of coffee wood in the production of light carpentry and other elements.
In the wake of the results provided by the first workshop, which saw the involvement of 26 international students and 10 teachers and assistants from the two Universities, in May 2010 we set up the second workshop, a facility interested in testing new construction models based on vegetable fibres that will be active up to September.
38 international students have been selected to join as many Rwandan students in this workshop, and 6 scholarships have been allocated to help them to develop and exploit their technical skills through direct confrontation with Rwanda’s reality.
The most important result of this ongoing experience is the creation of the ‘Rwanda Pavilion’, a sort of test platform where students and researchers of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology and of the IUAV University of Venice can build sections of a building on a 1:1 scale and test the behaviour of vegetable fibres in a specific climate.
Born out of scientific cooperation between KIST and IUAV, this ‘test lab’ represents an innovative example of organised research and training activities concerning the application of natural fibres in the construction sector.
Atelier Rwanda has planned a third workshop for June/July 2011 that will focus on the innovation and diversification of hand crafted products and will mainly address the craftsmen of cooperatives working in the various regions of Rwanda in order to gain the skills that are needed to make new products that will be introduced to the market.
In terms of research, the ‘Rwanda Pavilion’ will be further developed and implemented, consolidating its role as research and test facility for vegetable materials and local techniques.
All of the above will be put on display on occasion of Rwanda’s first exhibit in the ‘Biennale di Venezia’, but there is another way for us to look at, and assess, this experience.
In some two years approximately one hundred people, counting both European and Rwandan students and teachers, had the occasion to meet and work together in Rwanda.
They started to know each other, test each other, understand each other…