The Rwanda Healing Project

Artist: Lily Yeh
Location: Rugerero Sector, Rwanda
Year of completion: 2005
Researcher: Vera Tollmann

The Chinese-American artist Lily Yeh, founder of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization Barefoot Artists, met with Jean Bosco Musana Rukirande, regional coordinator of the Red Cross in Gisenyi, Rwanda, in 2004. This led to the large-scale TheRwanda Healing Project ten years after the 1994 genocide that killed one million people over one hundred days near Gisenyi. Two sites in Rwanda became focal points for Lily Yeh’s socially engaged practice: a structure containing a mass grave and a survivors' village called Rugerero.

In 2005 Yeh returned with three volunteers and recruited help from China Road and Bridge Construction Company to start the building of the Rugerero Genocide Memorial at the mass gravesite. Barefoot Artists collaborated with professionals from Kigali, workers and volunteers from Gisenyi and the U.S., and one hundred mostly single female-headed families from Rugerero. The Rugerero Genocide Memorial now is the area's official memorial.

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The memorial occupies approximately three quarters of an acre of land off the main highway connecting Kigali, the capital city, to Gisenyi, which is situated on the beautiful Lake Kivu bordering The Republic of Congo. The memorial is a white and blue colored sculptural compound. The bottom part of the bright white wall is painted purple, the color of mourning in Rwanda. Tall and slender columns carry the colors of the Rwandan flag, sky blue, yellow, and dark green near their tops. The project transformed the once forlorn and bleak mass gravesite into a colorful site inspired by the surrounding landscape.

For the tablet of the monument, Yeh used words given to her by survivors. Those words were for example TWIBUKE (Remember) and ABACU BAZIZE GENOCIDE 1994 TUZAHORITEKA TUBIBUKA (We will never forget the 1994 genocide).

In Rugerero’s survivors village, Barefoot Artists launched art, health, community, and economic initiatives: an educational program for children, a support group for young women, a basic health education program, improvement of the sanitation infrastructure, installation of rainwater harvesting tanks, and the launch of a micro-lending program and small business enterprises like sunflower oil production and sewing workshops.

The reason Yeh calls the project The Rwanda Healing Project is because it deals with death and destruction but also life, future and building. It is an on-going project. The Rugerero Genocide Memorial was given to the survivors and the government for safe-keeping in a ceremony in 2007.

Yeh managed to involve many partners, like the Rwandan Red Cross, Engineers Without Borders (Philadelphia group), Thomas Jefferson Medical University (JeffHealth), University of Florida (Center for the Arts in Healthcare), Skyheat (a Maine-based solar group), and many volunteers. Under the umbrella of The Rwanda Healing Project, Barefoot Artists still works on two projects near Gisenyi: at the Karukogo Survivors Village and the Kanama Twa Village in Rubavu sector.

Lily Yeh founded the organization Barefoot Artists, Inc. in 2002 with the intention to bring the transformative power of art to communities in the world. It is a volunteer-based organization that has no paid staff. The annual budget for projects is $75,000 a year. In 2011 Barefoot Artists carried out projects in Rwanda, Haiti, Taiwan, China, and Palestine.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency