Shaped by the explosive character of an old large volcano, Rwanda has been nicknamed ‘Le pays des mille collines’ (The country of a thousand hills). The hilly – even mountainous – landscape of Rwanda would make your road trip and trekking a real roller coaster with the endless pursuit of reaching the chain of mountains that soar into the sky. Be aware of the optical illusion of Rwanda’s geography, Rwandans will warn you. Stéphanie Kabanyana-Kanyandekwe, a one-of-kind artist based in Melbourne, likes to talk about the singularities of her mother’s country. Stéphanie explores interesting questions around textiles and language, music and the meaning of adornments. Far From Africa was delighted to enter the world of an interdisciplinary Rwandan-British artist who has lived in Australia most of her life and still proudly wears the colours of Rwanda.
In their Darwin home, where her mother used to paint watercolours and play the piano, Stéphanie developed a sense of art at a very young age. She was first encouraged to learn the piano and in the later years of high school she pursued her passion for music at Flinders University in Adelaide studying music composition. Far from a conventional classical music education, her university years enabled her to get a sense of what artistic path to take. More than a composer and a ‘control-freak’ as she kiddingly says, Stéphanie started to create and manage the environment to accompany her compositions. “I felt comfortable to expand my artistic greed to be involved across various areas but not a solo performer of one instrument”.
Spreading colours and creating a story wherever her music is played also takes us to another world that Stephanie has explored since her young age; textile, language and environmental and body adornments. Adornments are more than attractive accessories exposed outdoors or on your body. They don’t necessary have to match in colours but ‘in meanings’. Adornments represent a story, or even a history, that creates a memory related to a specific adornment. Its colours, pattern, texture and the likes are linked to a story that can take you deeper than the superficial purpose of today’s accessories. “I need to find the story of the item to be a consumer of it”, Stéphanie expresses. It now makes sense for Stéphanie who is doing much artistic research on textile and language. She says that she loves the language of textiles; its pattern, shape, the movement of a garment on you that you identify with or you feel it identifies you. Her attraction to textiles and clothing came at the age of ten, taught by someone that she describes as “a very meticulous textile worker” working at the local laundromat. Taking small steps towards grand achievements, she learnt from the basics up to garments. Making a garment holds a lot of meaning for Stéphanie, “treating every piece of fabrics as important and trying to see what you wanted to achieve in making this garment and how to show it through it. Telling a story through textiles and finding a narrative to it introduced me to the importance of textile and adornments on our bodies. My own identity and aesthetic values are ways of telling a story and how these values link to a deeper ongoing narrative of my own identity”. She has acquired a stronger sense of her artistic identity and pursuit after creating her own brand AK Adornment and realised that is this type of venture was a time-driven and superficial language.
The illusion vs. reality of names
Her textile-based narratives are very much influenced by the colours and fabrics of Rwanda’s fashion and what Rwandans show through their garments. When it is about Rwanda, Stéphanie does not hide her pride in the tiny country of Central Africa. Rwanda was under Belgian administration until its independence in 1962 which explains why Rwandans speak French and are tied to Christianity. The country is inhabited by three main groups: the Abahutu, the Watutsi and the indigenous Twa. However, when it comes to the question of which group she identifies the most with, the response is long, complex but constructive. Many debates have been conducted on the anthropological point of view on the Rwandan population. The most recent research traces the Hutu, farming people, back from Central and Southern Africa and the Tutsi, business people and landholders, who came down along the Nile. Talking about ethnic groups would be too confusing as they are more reflecting a social structure than tribalism. She explains “you could become a Tutsi if you have become a successful business person”. The genealogical history of peoples, the myriad of clans and groups and the social structure that has emerged blur the divisions among those groups. “I would love to be remembered and proudly defined as a Rwandan. Any form of delineation passed that continues to create a friction between people that just doesn’t need to exist and clearly exploded many times over the last century leading to dramatic human loss”. Today Rwanda sets a good example for peace by remembering and commemorating the genocide every year to never repeat history. Rwandans also show exemplary citizens as one Monday a month all Rwandans are obliged to do community work for half a day. She further explains “within a community, people give out tasks of activities to maintain order, cleanliness and progress in the community. Rwanda is remarkably clean to keep the community proud and it allows the community to grow”.
In these communities, births, weddings and the merge of two beings are honoured. “The more children you have, the wealthier you are but it has become less common today”. She continues, “the Nitwa ceremony allows every member of a community to vote for the name that a newborn should carry. Religious leaders have a conversation on the popular names and suggest one. Names denote characters, they define how you are and who you are going to be to the community”. Until last year, Stéphanie only had Kabanyana as her last name; a name that took a long journey to live up to. She was recently given the name Kanyandekwe by her godparent. Kanyandekwe means ‘the second in charge to the chief’, the person who delivers the chief’s plans and strategies. It is now a role she has taken on with her artistic practice as she looks at the Rwandan culture through the Western lens. She expresses “there was a moment to take actions on that”. As she says “identity is not stagnant but constantly changing” and that is why she has grown into a proud Rwandan-British woman.
‘The meaning of one’s land’
“Regardless of where you are, it is more about your lineage and what the land has meant for your ancestors, your current family and future generations”. Stéphanie has explored the meaning of the land in Australia. She worked as a School Program Manager and Artistic Director of three festivals in South Australia. One program enabled groups of Indigenous students to have access to music educators travelling to regional areas to put together a performance. Although she didn’t appreciate the top-down management of those programs leaving Indigenous communities disempowered, she felt “privileged and honoured to go to the communities, to be warmly embraced from them who clearly understood that were not in the best position and not getting the best they should be but were so humble in getting the best of it nonetheless”. Like many debaters, she would argue that Indigenous communities need to be empowered, regain a sense of self-determination where education is a support for the young generation to reconnect with language, stories, music, traditions to become a proud Indigenous person in the 21st century. She describes them as “ethically rich people” and doesn’t take lightly the privilege and honour that it has been to connect with Indigenous groups on their land. “When you are out on the country and you have nothing for your thoughts to bounce back when you look to the sunset or sunrise. When you’re in the city, everywhere you look your thoughts hit you”, Stéphanie shares the wise words of an Aboriginal elder. With these words, Stéphanie reminds us that natural phenomena such as “the sun blending into the earth is one of the precious things that human being can experience on a physical and emotional level”. To Stéphanie, it is essential to reconnect with one’s ancestral home and knowledge. The transference of that knowledge is a paramount as she’s constantly looking at reconnecting with the Rwandan community.
The majority of Stéphanie’s work reveals collaborations with artists such as Brook Andrew on the 52 Portraits exhibition, with the counterbass player Yung Hi Chan, with 9 composers for the NGV Melbourne NOW exhibition, and many more. She is now looking at an opportunity to work with a custom design theatre artist who has a particular passionate for crystals and how to incorporate this solid material in adornments.