THE RWANDAN ART OF BASKETRY
The art of basket weaving or basketry (vannerie in French) is as ancient as overlooked.
It requires only two things: skilled hands and locally available vegetal fibers. It arises and develops, therefore, from a deep connection between humans and their surrounding nature.
It certainly predates pottery: many pieces of evidence show we made baskets already in the late Stone Age when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers in need of lightweight, watertight containers. Since their origin, baskets were not just perfectly functional objects, but the embodiment of an aesthetic gaze, the expression of creativity and cultural traditions (when we make things, we make them beautiful and rich in meaning).
Basket weaving, in short, can overcome the limited horizon of a simple form of craftsmanship.
As an art, basketry traversed millennia remaining true to itself: still today, in Africa as in other continents, baskets are made with the very same gestures, techniques, patience, plant materials, and natural dyes used in prehistory. This feature of uncompromising naturalness and perfect biodegradability is also an irreparable weakness: baskets cannot overcome centuries like wooden sculptures, nor millennia like ceramic pots. They come from nature, and to nature effortlessly come back: they easily decay and disappear. We know we made baskets in the Stone Age not because we found any remnants of them, but because they left a trace on a pot or on a floor surface, an impression on mud or a fragment of bitumen.
Antique baskets are museum ghosts for reasons of force majeure; that’s why this art has been so overlooked. Moreover, it seems the ‘daughter of a lesser god’ for the large availability of its materials: gold is rare, prestigious, and shiny, while natural fibers are common, lowly, and unpretentious, but fortunately, we’re not magpies.
African basketry overturns many clichés not just for its artistry and cultural function but also for its current socio-economic role.
Sit down, please, and listen to the many stories some Rwandan baskets are ready to tell us. We’re about to start a surprising journey that will get us to the deep core of Sub-Saharan Africa.