Author Archive

The future of heritage repatriation

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

What is heritage repatriation? What does it mean for countries which are trying to decolonize — especially those in Africa? In a short video, UNESCO Chair Postdoctoral Fellow Annalisa Bolin suggests that we can see the return of cultural heritage as a midpoint in a longer process of moving toward national self-determination after colonialism.


New article by Annalisa Bolin on Rwandan heritage and international relationships

Tuesday, August 10th, 2021

The UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures’ Postdoctoral Fellow Annalisa Bolin has recently published “The Strategic Internationalism of Rwandan Heritage“, a fully open-access article in Journal of Eastern African Studies. The article covers heritage diplomacy, shared heritage and repatriation, and how heritage mediates the relationship between Rwanda and Germany:

“Heritage, a practice shot through with political forces, is mobilized by states within their international relationships through methods such as heritage diplomacy. Focusing on the connections between Rwanda and Germany, this article traces how heritage serves as a technique of foreign relations for the Rwandan state. The uses of heritage are shaped by the state’s higher-level political orientations, especially the project of agaciro, which pursues an agenda of increased sovereignty for Rwanda in relation to the rest of the world. This conditions how ‘shared heritage’ and heritage repatriation contribute to establishing strategic alliances and decolonizing, making heritage part of a suite of tools used to advantageously reposition the country in the international arena. The article deepens our understanding of the Rwandan state’s governing techniques and examines heritage’s role as a mediator of international relationships, even for less-powerful nations whose agency is sometimes neglected in discussions of heritage diplomacy.”

Future heritage and fashion design: Rwandan traditional culture in the global market

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Heritage studies might be forgiven for ignoring fashion shows in favor of museums and historic sites, but there’s something to be learned from the runway, too. Recently, the Rwandan fashion house Moshions launched a new ad campaign:

Moshions, based in Kigali, was founded in 2015 by Moses Turahirwa. On the company’s website, you can find contemporary men’s and women’s wear alongside bespoke and traditional clothing, including the iconic imishanana. Even on ready-to-wear, everyday fashions, details echo Rwanda’s traditional art and cultural forms, such as black and white geometric patterns also found in imigongo artwork or in basket weaving, an inspiration to the company’s designers. Moshions is a “culturally inspired fashion brand [which] uses traditional culture motifs with roots in Rwanda,” business manager Dany Rugamba told me.

Moshions isn’t unique in adapting traditional culture to contemporary fashion. But their “Future Heritage” campaign is interesting, and not just because it seems specifically tailored to catch the eye of the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. Moshions aims, as the campaign says, to “bridge the past with the future”: to bring traditional culture into conversation with what is happening today in Rwanda, and what might happen there—and elsewhere—in the years to come. When I spoke with Dany, our conversation showed the tension between specificity and vagueness, in both time and space, that must be negotiated in mobilizing traditional culture for a global market.

Imigongo patterns.

Dany told me that Moshions is pursuing a strategy of “timelessness”: “50 or 100 years from now,” he said, they hope that “our pieces would still feel relevant at that time.” The idea of timelessness in fashion, common to designers who seek a continuing appeal, echoes ways in which “traditional culture” has also been framed. As the anthropologist Johannes Fabian famously argued, anthropology’s object—historically, this meant non-Western, allegedly “primitive” societies—was once cast as a “timeless other.” Instead of recognizing all cultures to be continually changing and adapting, those viewed as traditional were also seen as trapped in the past. Stripped of their history, these cultures were “timeless.”

But in reality, no culture is timeless, and neither is the traditional culture that Moshions uses in its designs. We can learn about the deeper past of what is now Rwanda through disciplines like archaeology, but this deeper past somewhat predates what is generally thought of as “precolonial Rwanda,” whose material traditional culture is preserved in places like the Ethnographic Museum. As the historian Jan Vansina points out in Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, the Rwanda that we know today “is the product of the expansion of the culture of the Nyiginya court that began in the eighteenth but occurred mainly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (p. 198). “Pre-colonial Rwanda” and its associated traditional culture, as used in the heritage sector and in popular interpretations, usually indicate life as dated to this period—when Rwanda was coming together as the nation whose descendants live there today—right up through the early years of colonization, which began with the arrival of German colonizers in the 1890s.

So Rwandan traditional culture as it’s widely understood, and as it’s adapted through fashion design, is time-bound itself. But the illusion of timelessness is the illusion of an enduring appeal: a promise of persistent relevance. And, even if the traditional culture that Moshions draws on has a specific temporality, the company is trying to mobilize it in the interest not of a return to the past, but of a move into a future grounded in historical legacies while not limited by them.

Moshions’ Mwimba dress.

This attempt to avoid being trapped in a highly specific vision of “traditional culture” is paralleled by how Moshions handles its geographic context. While the cultural motifs that they draw on for inspiration are frequently Rwandan, Moshions deliberately markets its products to both a Rwandan and a global audience. Who, I asked, constitutes its target market? “Anyone who is a fashion enthusiast,” Dany told me: anyone from young, hip Rwandans, to members of the diaspora interested in connecting with their roots, to the broader pan-African market and the rest of the world. With the possible exception of Moshions’ explicitly Rwandan traditional wear, the market is geographically and culturally inclusive, but the price points—108€ and up for a men’s shirt—clearly indicate that it is largely internationalized.

Selling to this market puts pressure on the extent to which Moshions can utilize or rely on noticeably Rwandan motifs, especially if, as Dany said, they want customers who buy things “because they’re beautiful, not just because they have a story.” As a company, Moshions doesn’t want its designs to be tokenized as “Rwandan,” in other words, or to appeal mainly to foreigners who are looking for the exotic. Instead, they hope to contribute to a global conversation about fashion by developing designs which are rooted in an interpretation, or a transformation, of a specific culture. “We want to represent Rwanda, absolutely, and [get people to] know about Rwanda one way or another,” Dany said, but “we don’t want to make it feel very limited or very exclusive,” either. “Without feeling very nationalist,” he said, he hoped that Moshions could “position Rwanda on an international level and for a global image.”

Moshions’ Umwitero shirt.

This attempt to avoid being pigeonholed as limitedly Rwandan illuminates the bind for African designers. “We don’t usually like to say [we are] ‘African’ fashion designers, because at the end of the day we are all fashion designers irrespective of where we come from,” Dany commented; “we are part of the world. We are part of exploring what’s happening intercontinentally.” As a result, he said, Moshions’ designs preferred subtler visual references to Rwandan culture over the use of styles like the iconic wax prints which sometimes stand as a visual shorthand for Africa. These choices and the pressures which inform them illustrate how easy it is for African designers and artists to be trapped by tokenism and stereotyping into a narrow space, rather than fully participating in a global conversation, and how strategic their artistic and marketing responses are forced to be in response.

A wax print.

Operating in an international market, Moshions is walking a fine line. They aim to not be limited by being perceived as exclusively Rwandan, while also not allowing that Rwandanness to be diffused to the point of becoming invisible. Their orientation toward the years to come is a vision of continued relevance achieved by evoking the “timelessness” of traditional styles but adapting them for an unbounded, global future.

This measured level of specificity in both time and place is perhaps what allows Moshions’ clothes to appeal to a wider market: they are intended to be unique enough to be interesting, but not so particular as to be alienating. The conversation Moshions is having about heritage is not just a discussion of fashion and design, but also an engagement with the possibilities and the difficulties of using traditional culture in a globalizing world.

After repatriation, what next?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020

On Africa Is a Country, Annalisa Bolin writes about the return to African countries of the cultural heritage taken during colonialism. “After repatriation, what next?” examines the usable pasts and heritage futures that restitutions make possible on the continent, and the options African countries have for the use of their heritage going forward. 

Podcast about Rwandan heritage research

Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

UNESCO Chair postdoctoral fellow Annalisa Bolin was interviewed on HumPodd about her research on Rwandan heritage, genocide memorials, development, and tourism. Listen to her conversation with Tommy Gustavsson and Jonas Svensson online or find the “Bloody Heritage” episode of HumPodd on Apple podcasts.

Coronavirus and the changing practices of memory in Rwanda

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Every April, Rwanda observes the official commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in 1994. People gather in large groups to remember the victims, pay respects, and mourn together; wreaths are laid at mass graves and the flame of remembrance is lit at Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital.

This year, coronavirus hit Rwanda only weeks before the season of Kwibuka (“to remember”). Rwanda has witnessed enormous change and development since 1994, but it remains relatively impoverished, and while most Rwandans are covered through a system of universal healthcare, a coronavirus-induced spike could—as in most countries—quickly overwhelm the country’s healthcare capacity. The government responded swiftly to flatten the curve, closing Rwanda’s borders and instituting a nationwide lockdown, complete with provision of food and essentials to some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable.

For Rwandans, as for much of the world, this spring brings immense changes to everyday life. But it also changed Kwibuka, pressuring organizers to find ways of reconciling the mandate to remember—a mandate fulfilled every April through mass commemoration and public participation—with the imperative to reduce virus transmission.

Kwibuka not only provides space for memory, but also ensures that this memory is passed on to younger generations—an urgent need in Rwanda, where a majority of citizens was born after the genocide. This desire to educate has been a driver of the growth of Kwibuka into a major national event, shaping commemoration in the country. Rwanda’s lockdown has forced changes in these practices, potentially endangering the ability to maintain collective memory into the future, as well as posing obstacles to meeting the needs of survivors and commemorators today.

President Kagame acknowledged the challenge in his Kwibuka address to the nation: “This year’s commemoration for survivors and families and for the country is hard because we cannot be together physically to comfort one another,” he said. “It is not an easy thing to do, Rwandans are used to coming together with solidarity and collective strength.” But, he added, “The current unusual circumstances will not prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to commemorate this solemn anniversary, honor those we lost and console survivors.”

There are resonances between April 1994, when Rwandans hid in their homes, and April 2020, under a national lockdown order. “It is April again, and we are on lock-down but this time not for being killed!” writes genocide survivor and author Claver Irakoze. “This time we actually feel safe to be locked down. We feel protected, not ambushed or surrounded.” Kwibuka has gone on, although the photos from this year’s ceremonies look very different. The President and First Lady light the flame at the Kigali memorial alone; high-ranking government officials lay wreaths one at a time, while the Rwandan Army Band performs, each member seated two meters apart from the next.

The changes in Kwibuka are difficult, as Nelson Gashagaza and Samantha Teta acknowledge. “Kwibuka26 is going to be exceptionally hard for survivors who will not be able to visit their beloved, lay down flowers on grave or water-bodies or meet in one place,” they write. New ways must be found to commemorate, especially online. These are especially important, Gashagaza and Teta point out, for survivors, who can find the anniversary of the genocide traumatic. “The best we can do for now is not allow survivors to experience the worst part of holding the memories: the loneliness of it,” they say. Being unable to visit shared spaces for commemoration is a loss, but not one that requires survivors, or any Rwandan, to go through Kwibuka alone. “Just because we can’t convene in lieux de mémoire,” Gashagaza and Teta say, “doesn’t mean we can’t create milieux de memoire—an environment of remembrance” online, using the digital platforms that are helping Rwandans connect during lockdown to facilitate communal gathering and support for survivors.

In Kagame’s speech, the Rwandan New Times reports, the president “highlighted that historical lessons have taught Rwandans the importance of working together to build a better future for all Rwandans”. Rwanda’s post-genocide development has been built, in part, on the pursuit of self-reliance, and the attempt to solve Rwandan problems with “homegrown solutions”. Lessons from Rwanda’s past are helping it manage the challenges of the present in contexts as different as the pursuit of development and mitigating coronavirus’s impact on the most difficult, important season of the year.

For Kwibuka26, Rwandans are helping to ensure their collective survival through finding new ways to be together while having to be apart. Although it is easy to think of memory as past-oriented and static, in fact the many ways humans remember—including Kwibuka’s commemorations—are dynamic. They respond not only to contemporary conditions, but also to what is anticipated that the future will need, as in Rwanda’s efforts to educate younger generations through collective commemoration. Coronavirus has prompted changes in memory practices, opening up new possibilities for the coming years. In Kwibuka27 and beyond, perhaps some of these new milieux de mémoire, and other solutions Rwandans develop, will persist as part of the changing landscape of commemoration.