10 artisans supported by Kisany, DR CONGO
DR CONGO | 2018


SECTION OF DRESS: Special words of meaning

A collaborative work created by a group of strong and vibrant women rebuilding their lives with the help of embroidery.

KISANY is a Belgian social entreprise dedicated to building an economy of skilled and financially independent artisans in DR Congo and Rwanda. For over fifteen years, they have offered training and work to vulnerable women and the result is two flourishing partner ateliers, fulfilling local and international projects, and more than 1300 lives transformed.

The words below are written by Nicole Esselan, founder of KISANY.

“This commission by a group of 10 Congelese women, shows the best of themselves, a joyful side, bright in colour which bring s a smile to my face! The words they chose to embroider have a strong meaning for them: solidarity, love, friendship, pride, trust, liberty, peace. This is what training and work has helped them to achieve and feel more empowered. Next door to Rwanda, Congo has been war-torn for the last 3 decades; there is not one day that doesn’t come with its toll. These women have been abandoned by the society because they had nothing to offer: they were widows, single mothers, abandoned wives, orphans. They told me one day that they had become invisible! None of their relatives were able to support them or even wishing to do so. From time to time, they would be invited to a family gathering and even though they were free seats, they could not sit!

In 2002, they started from scratch when they decided to embark on this new adventure; they had nothing to lose anyway! Today, most of them have managed to buy a plot of land, built a small house; they can all send their kids to school and look after them properly; they can play their role in their community.”

To contact Nicole to arrange commissions please see the Kisany website : https://www.kisany.com/

10 women took part in the commission, here are the individual stories of 7; Christelle, Esther Espérance, Jeanette, Louise, Justine, Gisèle, as told by Nicole Esselen.


1. Louise | SOLIDARITY

I would like to say that she is quite special but they really all are. Still, we have known each other for many years and she has blossomed into the woman that was there in the first place but who needed a hand to become the most beautiful expression of herself.

Louise is 54 years old and had 4 children: 3 girls and 1 boy. At the birth of Bijou, her youngest  daughter, 28 years ago, her husband abandoned the family.  Louise remembers how she felt, left with nothing but a new born and a severely impaired boy.

She couldn’t hope from any help from the government for her son since handicapped children are not a consideration. Her husband’s family disappeared at the same time, not willing to support her or the children, not even wanting to keep in touch.

Her life was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. With no money, she started to borrow and accumulated debts. Very soon, she was ostracised.

Yet she did what she had to do to put food on the table and thought out of the box. She had learned how to embroider while at school and she started again. It was a long shot since she had to embroider and sell her product in order to raise her children and provide for them. But so she did. And for 12 years, she survived raised and educated her children as well as she could. She didn’t let go.

In 2005, life took a new turn when she joined a group of embroiderers now gathered under a local association called AGAPE. She made her place and realised that she wasn’t alone in her situation. Step by step, she paid her debts off. A year later, she received a loan to buy a house; today she has paid it off and is the proud owner of it. All along, she made sure her youngest daughter went to school to get an even better education. And she wasn’t disappointed! In 2016, Bijou became the first University graduate!

When we discuss the Red Dress assignment, she tells me that SOLIDARITY is what came to her mind because

"…together, we can move mountains, we can create change”. She looks at the photo of the dress, then back at me and adds “this is a great example of what we can do together”.

Bijou sits near by when we discuss and I ask her what she learned from her mother and if there is a trait of character that would describe her.

"Courage and perseverance. She never gave up and she always sent us to school. Always even if she had to beg in order to find money for the fees”.

2. Jeanette | LIFE

Jeanette is 42 years old, has 8 children and a husband who is unemployed. For the last 17 years, she has been the main provider of her family raising her children, paying for their education, caring for them and giving them love in an area devastated by war and corruption.

Last year, when asked to embroider a design for the Red Dress, she decided to write and embroider the word “LIFE”

Sitting with her a few days ago in Goma, Jeannette told me that she chose the word “life” because not only did she give life to her children, she also gave them the means to build their own LIFE.

"Without financial autonomy, there is no life and I am very proud of my work, of the independence it is giving me, of the respect I gained through work”.

She finally added that, having worked with women living similar lives, often worse ones, she realised that for her LIFE to change, she was the one to create the LIFE she wanted for her and her family.

Jeanette is one of the 7 women who started this adventure in 2002. Always very shy and discreet, it is the first time that I see her oozing so much life, expressing herself so vividly, laughing, being so proud and happy.

It feels my heart with joy to see her like this, A LIFE, FULL OF LIFE !   

3. Gisèle | LIBERTY

Gisèle is 30 years old. We met for the first time in 2003 in Goma. She was amongst the lucky ones whose house had not been swallowed by the volcano eruption in 2001, yet she was living in very poor conditions. Her father had left, her mother was the only carer of 4 kids and Gisèle had to stop going to school when she was 11 to find a way to support her family and herself. Today she is happily married and a mother of one girl.

She chose to embroider “LIBERTY” because she feels that she made her own choices and she never dreamt of being free. Back 17 years ago, she decided to learn to embroider because she could stay at home and work there while watching her siblings and helping her mother. She discovered that she was very good at it and soon she made enough money to pay for them to go back to school. She waited 6 years for her to sit back in a classroom and finish the Primary cycle. She went into Secondary for one year and decided that it wasn’t for her. She married in 2012 and together with her husband they have agreed to have one child; a privilege rarely enjoyed by married women in DRC. She wants her daughter to have a better life, to feel loved and to get the education she deserves. She is a very proud mum.

4. Espérance | JOY

Espérance is a very shy woman. She doesn’t say much.  42 years old, she raises her 5 children alone since her husband passed away in 2014. She remembers she felt devastated and very scared when it all happened, yet she chose to embroider the word “joy”. She does so because embroidering brings her joy, allows her to send her kids to school and feed them daily.

"Joy doesn’t need to be tremendous or overwhelming, it is these small achievement that bring me joy and that’s enough for me”.

She adds that being financially autonomous has brought her respect and independence, which she enjoys. She tells women in similar situation to work, even if they only make a little income, so that they can take back the threads of the lives.

5. Esther | DIGNITY

Esther is 44 years old and raises her 3 children alone since the father left in 2009. She embroidered “dignity” because today she feels dignified. Before, she was transparent, insignificant. Now she is respected by her family, her pears: she feels that she has a voice, she manages to support other people. She feels empowered. She gained confidence one step after the other, being able to achieve her goals, complete her chores. She feels that being in her position today helps her deal with her children who show her respect and are proud of her.

6. Judith | PRIDE

Judith is 32 years old and has been working for half of her life. She has no regret on the contrary, she is very proud of what she achieved in 16 years. This is why she embroidered “PRIDE”. As an embroiderer not only did she have a chance to make a living and being financially autonomous, she also had a chance to travel and train women in Kenya and live with them for a few months. It made her realize that she was capable of traveling, settling somewhere new and sharing her knowledge. It made her feel proud and happy. She also managed to buy a plot and have a house; her own today since she reimbursed the money that we lent to her by KISANY.

"Being the proud owner of a house is quite exceptional in Goma, especially in Goma where women have little rights and are not often recognised as equal to men. All the documents have been made in my name and the house is now mine; I paid it with my own labour”.

Today, she is married. It happened actually a few years ago when she found the right husband to be. She wanted to chose, she felt like it was her right, her privilege and so she wasn’t in a hurry.

"I have one son, I have a voice in my couple and in my family, I am respected, and I have freedom”.

7. Christelle | LOVE

Christelle is 31 years old and joined AGAPE in 2012. She proudly tells me that she a “fille-mère”, a girl-mother, a word often used to discriminate the mothers who have had a child out of marriage. It happened, she says, because she was in love but the boy definitely didn’t have the same feelings.

Her daughter, Gladys, is 7 years old and very much loved too.

LOVE is in her heart, LOVE is paramount which is why she embroidered it. She confesses that life has not always been easy. Being pregnant without anyone on her side, she was ostracised, criticised and rejected even more by her family. She failed her exams and never got her Secondary diploma; her parents didn’t forgive her that.

She realises that there was little love around but she didn’t give up. She continued smiling and enjoying whatever there was to enjoy. Small things.

A friend who cared told her about an embroidery training which led to a job eventually.

Today, her income allows her to support her family, provide education for her sisters and look after her daughter. She is the only one to look after her parents.

She has forgiven her parents and they have forgiven her. Love has conquered bitterness.


OUR SUPPORTERS

A huge thank you to all who have given their time, energy, enthusiasm, advice, experience and financial support to the Red Dress project over the years.

In addition to the institutions below, funding has been gratefully received from a number of private donations and 344 individuals around the world via a Crowdfunded campaign in 2020.

"
The Red Dress in its final incarnation, a magnificent, regal robe, symbolises the empowerment of women through the creation of something beautiful, something which began with bowed heads and tired fingers but also with faith and joy, an openness and willingness to be a part of something which they could not see at that time but in which they could believe had meaning and worth connecting with other women around the world
Lady Alison Myners, Chair of the Royal Academy Trust 2020
The Red Dress is in some respects similar to Mail Art, the populist artistic movement centred on sending small scale works through the postal service. It initially developed out of the Fluxus movement in the 1950s and 60s – but on a larger scale – the journey of the work is part of its identity, process, and in fact function. A signifier of the temporal and physical nature of the process inherent in the creation of the piece. The surface of the dress layered with embroidery slowly transforming into a specific topographical map – completely particular to the work’s journey – and reflective of the burgeoning sculptural landscape of the object
Paul Black, Artlyst 2015
It’s her (Kirstie’s) red silk Dupion bodice and voluminous skirt created for the Red Dress that fully demonstrates her commitment to embroidery and the immense respect for the international community of makers
Denna Jones. Embroidery Magazine 2010
I can't remember when they embroidered that piece of silk (2018?) but I feel that something has changed since. The fact that they could embroider what they wanted and that it is appreciated has given them some strength, some confidence that I didn’t feel so strongly before. Last year, I sent them a drawing and asked them to “interpretate" it the way they wanted; again it came back with a lot of emotions, another beautiful story. Thank you for giving them this opportunity
Nicole Esselan, Founder of Kisany Africa (supporting artisans in DR CONGO and RWANDA)
This is both an extraordinary work of collective art and profound and eloquent social commentary. It is also an example of how potent the Attire language is capable of becoming
Attires Mind (Fashion Blogger) 2020
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