The Meaning Behind the Patterns on Rwandan Basketry – Paulski Art

The Meaning Behind the Patterns on Rwandan Basketry

''Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” ~ Richard P. Feynman

It has always been amazing how a simple click on Google brings up an abundance of results we were not entirely aware of, and opens up our minds to a sea of wonder and knowledge. You just have to find the credibility behind it. Africa's history has never fallen short of this, as the evidence exists all over the world. The realization that what we know is just the tip of the iceberg. If I had a dollar for how many colors and patterns on Rwandan baskets I have seen and desired to arrange on my wall like a gigantic African mural with secret symbols conveying stories and messages of a time that was, I'd be probably have a couple thousand dollars. 


When you think back to Rwanda, the most prominent memory is of the Genocide that shook the world to its core. The Republic of Rwanda is a small East African country that lies along the Great Rift Valley, in the African Great Lakes region. Today, she boasts of a rich history, diverse culture, and many other things that make it worth exploring. Rwanda has been through many trials and tribulations but it is now one of the most stable countries in Africa. The Rwandan government has been able to rebuild the country and make it a prosperous one. Today, it is a leading African nation in the fields of education, health, and economy.


What of the arts? 

Rwanda’s art history is a rich and complex one, with many different cultural influences from the past. It is a history of an oppressed people who have found their voice through art, and can be traced back to the early days of the 20th century. The land of a thousand hills, home of twenty-three lakes, numerous rivers which feed the sources of the Nile, and many wetlands and high altitude marshlands, is rich in grass and reeds that were used for various forms of art. The Kuba Kingdom was an important influence on Rwanda’s art history, as they were the first to introduce a system of pictorial writing. They would paint their messages on bark cloth scrolls. This style of painting was passed down to future generations in Rwanda, and it continues to be used today by artists throughout the country. The Rwandan people also adopted other styles of painting from neighboring countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, France and Belgium.

Basketry in Rwanda however, is an activity largely practiced by the women. The basket weaving groups include both Hutu and Tutsi women, for whom working together helps heal old grievances. You see, after the fatal 1994 incident, many women, around 70% of the population were left behind and had to cater for their needs and livelihood… to start living again.  This weaving culture has expanded the world’s love for art and meaning, seen in Macys department stores, numerous American households, appearances in huge acclaimed corporations like the New York Times, CNN and UN Women. The story behind the symbols and patterns holds the most intriguing account of events, that people need to be aware of in order to understand the greatness of this handmade artistry.

Weaving for Peace


Once upon a rich Africa’s past, the art of patterns acquired through the mastery and knowledge of the shapes and forms of the flora and fauna in the world around them, formed a basis of communication and identification. For centuries, these patterns varied and symbolized different feelings, virtues and traditions that belonged to various groups of people, the wisdom of a tribe or their daily activities. These patterns had two variations. They were either geometric or symbolic. Geometric patterns used zigzags, chessboard, curved lines, spirals and circles to send messages, while symbolic patterns used images which had some symbolic meaning for the artist and the person using the art, and they included crescents, stars, flowers, seeds, trees and pods.


Rwanda’s patterns on baskets hold deep meaning because through the hardships of ethnic boundaries or past traumas, women came together and formed artisan cooperatives that exercised peace and a new form ofwealth generation and education through weaving. Their patterns would then live on and provide a lasting memory and reminder to the artist and all who have the pleasure of owing a piece, that the path in life is never straightforward but instead, is often difficult to travel. Rwandan baskets are a symbol of peace, and a symbol of culture.

The traditional Rwandan basket known as Agaseke, is a symbol of peace and love. Alternatively, it is a major force in the war against poverty, particularly among women living in rural areas. Its importance is that it symbolizes family life. However, weaving baskets goes beyond putting food on the table and sending kids to school. Made from sisal fiber and grass, the Rwandan baskets were weaved with style and precision, and impressive patterns. An example is the iconic zigzag pattern that represent two women holding hands, a symbol of unity and hope for Rwanda’s future.


Having a look at Rwanda’s national seal, you will notice a basket of unusual shape. The slogan reads “Republic of Rwanda – Unity, Work, Patriotism” in Kinyarwanda, the Bantu language spoken by almost all of the Rwandans. Usually at the center, the basket is, flanked by a stem of sorghum on the left, and a branch of the coffee tree on the right (the country’s economy is based mostly on agriculture: sorghum is an important crop, used as human food and animal fodder, while coffee is major cash crops for export). Their baskets are now used as wall art, holders, planters, center pieces, of different colors, patterns and designs, but all having one distinguishing factor… the symbolism of protection as the tight stitch and weaving pattern gives ample protection of the contents, often dry foods, from outside conditions and pests. Unity that holds them together to this day. Unity that holds us together. 


Have a look at the patterns and colors of Rwanda baskets we have in store. Let us help you unify the décor, colors and hues in your home.