Photo by Yulia Denisyuk
From the Ashes: Rwanda’s Traditional Imigongo Art Is on the Rise
With its geometric shapes and bright, natural colors, “imigongo” cow dung art would look right at home in a Brooklyn living room. This traditional art form, which was nearly lost during the 1994 genocide, is once again flourishing across the Land of a Thousand Hills.
In Rwanda, bold, geometric imigongo art adorns the huts of traditional villages and the lobbies of the country’s finest boutique hotels (including the recently opened One&Only Nyungwe House). The hottest fashion design shops and artisan studios in the capital of Kigali proudly carry pieces of imigongo art on their shelves.
But there’s more to this distinctly Rwandan craft than meets the eye: It is created through a remarkable process that uses an abundant material—cow dung—and, with the help of artistry and natural dyes, turns it into an object of admiration. In the disarray that followed the genocide, the art form nearly disappeared; but now, riding the wave of cultural resurgence that’s taking over the country 25 years later, imigongo stands as a symbol of incredible resilience and ingenuity—like Rwandans themselves. Here is what you need to know about imigongo and where to find it.
A royal tradition
In the small landlocked Eastern African nation of Rwanda, cows have been revered for centuries. Owning a cow in this traditionally agrarian society was a symbol of wealth and noble social status; the animal was so important that a subset of the breed called inyambo was developed specifically for the kings in the 17th century. These elegant royal cows with long, arched horns and a stately appearance paraded past royal villages in elaborate ceremonies that honored the ruling king.
Perhaps the idea for imigongo was sparked during one of these royal parades. According to local beliefs, the practice of decorating with cow dung was invented in the late 18th or early 19th century by Prince Kakira, the son of King Kimenyi of Gisaka in the eastern Kibungo region near the Tanzanian border. Mixing cow dung, a readily available medium, with ash and clay, Prince Kakira adorned the dull walls of his hut with the paste-like compound. He then taught local women his method, and they passed it on through the generations.
From dung to art
Most contemporary imigongo is now found off hut walls as smaller-scale artworks, but the process of making it remains the same. It starts with a wooden base plate that can range in size from a tiny photo frame to large-scale wall mural. The artist divides this plate into equal parts using banana fibers to ensure that the finished design is proportional then sketches geometric patterns—zigzags, spirals, diamonds, or squares—onto the plate with charcoal. The main medium is a mixture of fresh cow dung and ash, which kills bacteria and odor. The artist applies this malleable, dough-like paste by hand and painstakingly traces the desired pattern with the fingers, creating a raised relief. It takes the work about a day to air dry, and then it’s sanded for smoothness and covered in a neutral base coat of ochre to ensure that the rest of the colors will show up in uniform hues.
Once the work is dried, the artist paints designs in a simple palette of no more than four natural pigments. Traditional colors include white, derived from the clay mineral kaolin; red from the iron-rich Rwandan soil; yellow from ochre, another natural clay pigment; and a black created from banana peel ashes, aloe (ikakarubamba) sap, and poisonous soda apple fruit (umutobotobo). Increasingly, artists use a broader range of colors in more modern designs, but the traditional look continues to feature four colors or fewer.
A contemporary revival
Twenty-five years after the genocide, the unimaginable series of events that tore the nation apart, Kigali’s clean, leafy streets are abuzz with a radiant energy that suggests that the country is on the rise. Delegations from other African nations visit to study governance and green energy practices, and young, ambitious Rwandan artists flock here to explore their cultural heritage and traditional art forms.
You can find imigongo in the several design shops and artisan studios in Kigali that profile these artists’ work. One of them is Haute Baso, an ethical fashion design brand that collaborates with nearly 300 local artisans to create high-quality, sustainable products.
In the busy neighborhood of Kimihurura, the local Azizi Life artisan studio carries imigongo products by artist Alex Nsengiyimva, who learned the craft from his wife. (While imigongo is a traditionally female art form, it is now attracting male artists as well.) Shelves inside the airy studio also display colorful woven baskets and jars of local honey, all supplied by nearly 30 Rwandan cooperatives. Here, you can purchase a stunning imigongo to take home or create your own in a weekly workshop run by Nsengiyimva. The studio even ships products in the United States from a stateside warehouse.
But to get to the heart of imigongo, you must go east to where the art form was born. Head out along the RN3 road and you’ll pass several artisan cooperatives such as the Imigongo Art Center and craft coffee shop in Kayonza (a 90-minute drive from Kigali) and the Ikora Imigongo Kirehe (KOIIK) in Kaziba village (a three-hour drive from Kigali).
Perhaps the most famous collective is near the town of Nyakarambi, about three hours east of Kigali. Over a dozen women, many of them genocide widows, carry on the prince’s tradition at his namesake cooperative, Kakira Imigongo. The organization was established after the 1994 tragedy to revive the practice, which came to a halt during the genocide, while giving grieving women a creative outlet. Today, a replica of the prince’s hut houses a staggering array of black-and-white patterns in a maze-like space. Here, and across Rwanda, imigongo is more than cow dung art. It is a way to preserve tradition while moving on from a more recent past.