Winnie Kalisa's passion for ceramics provides her with an outlet to express her emotions beyond words. Her unique and striking pieces seamlessly blend traditional Rwandan pottery techniques with contemporary design aesthetics, reflecting her deep reverence for her heritage. Her art pays tribute to the raw and untamed beauty of Rwanda's earth and rock formations, with each piece thoughtfully crafted to bring the landscape to life. Using earthy tones and intricate designs, Winnie's art creates a harmonious connection to the natural environment that is both comforting and inspiring. For Winnie, Laini represents more than just a business venture; it embodies the warmth that pottery brings to a space through its beauty and functionality. Each piece captures the essence of Winnie's creative spirit and celebrates the beauty of Rwandan culture. Through her work, Winnie has revived this ancient art form, making it relevant to modern tastes and revitalising it with a contemporary twist.

"To me, creativity means freedom. It embodies freedom in every sense of the word," said Winnie. "Creativity provides a framework where you can put anything you want, and it helps to define who you are.”

I have been in awe of Winnie's artistry ever since she launched her first studio in Kimihurura, near Mamba, a few years ago. Although weaving was her main focus, only a few pottery items were displayed, each showcasing impressive craftsmanship that left me admiring her skills. As I wandered through the studio, I discovered a living room beside it that sheltered a weaving machine, where the threads were carefully stretched, eagerly awaiting their transformation into something beautiful. Winnie's skilled hands deftly wove the warp threads of the loom to craft intricate and captivating designs, demonstrating the subtleties of weaving for me. With my camera in hand, I captured a few pictures of the experience that occurred three or four years ago. At that time, I had already promised to interview Winnie someday and learn more about her story. Finally, in late 2022, that day arrived.

"Finding a medium that brings me to life, allowing me to express myself and my creativity while also enabling others to interact with my process, is liberating," declared Winnie as we sipped tea together at my place in Rebero. "It makes me feel like there is nothing holding me back, and anything that comes my way trying to hold me down becomes a stepping stone that prompts me to ask 'what's next?'"

Winnie Kalisa's craftsmanship, showcases her skilful hands moulding a bowl. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

At the dawn of her journey, Winnie chose to name her studio "Laini," a name that captured the very essence of her art, evoking the Swahili translation of "soft touch." The women artisans, who had passed on their knowledge to her, affectionately gifted her with the nickname "Laini" - a name that stood as a symbol of their admiration for her passion for crafting pieces that reflected the softness that characterised her art. Moreover, the Swahili name held a subtle nod that was closely tied to her personal background, as she was born in Tanzania where Swahili is commonly spoken.

"I don't have many memories of my childhood in Tanzania as I was very young," Winnie recounted, "However, I did experience memories of Tanzania through my family's stories while growing up in Rwanda. My uncles and aunts were very much into the Swahili culture, which they had experienced for many years, so our household has always felt like a small piece of Tanzania in Rwanda. So, this is how Tanzania and the Swahili language found their way into my life."

Inspired by the cultural fusion of Tanzania, which blends ancient African traditions, colonial vestiges from the British, Germans, and Portuguese, and the lasting imprint of Arab and Indian traders to create a rich and diverse tapestry, Winnie's artistic vision serves as a wellspring of creativity for her artistic endeavours, also heavily influenced by her upbringing in Rwanda, where she has lived since the age of six.

Laini's artisanal tableware arranged on a shelf. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

"By the way, do you live at Laini Studio?" I asked, trying not to be too intrusive as I awkwardly smiled and ground my teeth.

Winnie chuckled and responded, "Yes, I do actually. Working in a separate space just doesn't work for me. I need my workspace to feel like an organic part of my lifestyle. There isn't a fixed time of day that I prefer to work. Some days, I feel like starting early in the morning, while other times, I prefer to work at night when it's quiet and distraction-free. Therefore, my living space as my workspace is a reflection of my personality and work style, which makes me feel more inspired and productive. ”

On my way to photograph Winnie for the feature portrait piece at the new Laini studio, I was captivated by the charming beauty of the Belgian-style house from the eighties. The car slowly made its way down the path, and the soft crackle of pebbles under the tires added to the soothing ambience of the place. As Winnie had relocated her studio a few weeks before our interview at my house in Rebero, I had already been to the new location several times. However, even after visiting it multiple times, the striking facade of the house never failed to enchant me. This hidden gem is a rare find in Kigali, nestled in the heart of the Kimihurura neighbourhood, tucked away in a small corner accessible behind the old Ogopogo, as you make your way to Kimi Bar. On that day, the weather was unpredictable as the heavens suddenly opened up, pouring down rain in sheets. The lush foliage surrounding the studio glistened in the rain, and the delicate water droplets shimmered on the leaves of towering trees before cascading onto the vibrant blades of grass below. Unfortunately, this meant I wouldn't be able to take pictures of Winnie in her garden. However, the rain added an extra charm to the surroundings, making the visit to Laini Studio a sensory treat.

Laini studio's brick house in the Belgian architectural style of the eighties. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

As I stepped inside, my attention was drawn to the gracefully arranged wooden shelves, exhibiting a collection of pottery that included cups, saucers, plates, and vases. The studio's interior design manifested a consistent aesthetic that perfectly complemented the brick facade, creating a mystical yet warm aura. Each piece, defined by an interplay of natural textures and earthy colours that blend seamlessly with the studio's surroundings, was displayed with meticulous care, unveiling its unique beauty and artisanal craftsmanship.

"How long did it take you to make this?" I asked Winnie, pointing to the large vase that reached up to my chest.

"Two to three months," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. Observing my surprised expression, she added, "Making a big piece like this is a real labour of love, and it's mostly because the clay takes a good while to dry out fully."

The longer I observed the display, the more I realised that the pottery pieces were not just mere tableware but works of art that transcended their functional purpose. With every passing moment, I was struck by their otherworldly beauty crafted with care and precision, forming a magnificent ensemble that could grace the walls of an art exhibition. Despite the noticeable influence of Rwandan heritage on Winnie's art, her boundless imagination takes her on a journey of wild creativity, resulting in the creation of vases with half-human faces, mugs in the shape of women's breasts, and other intriguing shapes that blur the line between function and art. But also, Winnie's knowledge of the history and traditions of Rwandan pottery infused my experience with a layer of meaning and depth. It gave me a fresh perspective on the pieces on display and allowed me to appreciate them in an entirely new way.

"Pottery is an integral part of our culture in Rwanda and has been since the beginning of time," said Winnie. “Ceramics have always been present, from the items we treasure in our homes to those we use in our everyday lives. They form the foundation of our craftsmanship, whether it's a pot for cooking or a container for beer. Therefore, pottery has found its way into the homes and culture of Rwandans and become a part of our daily lives.”

Photo of Winnie Kalisa shaping a bowl on a potter's wheel. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

The art of pottery-making in Rwanda, with its deep cultural significance and rich history, is often overshadowed by the popularity of agaseke baskets. Yet, pottery-making is a deeply-rooted and ancient art form in Rwanda, tracing back to the 8th century BC. Forest dwellers, living in harmony with nature, honed their pottery-making skills and lived near wetlands to access the prized clay. Despite its long history, the art of pottery-making in Rwanda is often overlooked. However, the legacy of this art form has been passed down through generations, with children learning by observing and emulating their parents' work. Over time, they gradually perfected their skills and continued to pass down this ageless tradition to their own children.

Winnie's path towards Laini started with smaller projects such as blankets and lampshades. Eventually, while creating a lamp for a client, she decided to make a pottery lamp base. Little did she know that this journey would test her resilience and perseverance to the limit. To bring her vision to reality, Winnie had to seek out a skilled artisan who was employed at Gatagara, an established atelier in the South in the seventies, which is the exclusive distributor of ceramics to shops across the country and considered an essential pillar of the Rwandan ceramics industry. However, finding a skilled artisan who could produce the lamp base within a reasonable timeframe proved to be an arduous quest. Wait times of up to three months for a single piece were the norm, making it impractical for her business to sell in the studio. Nevertheless, Winnie refused to be daunted by the obstacles, driven by an unwavering determination to bring her vision to life.

Painting brushes at Laini Studio used for pottery. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

"So, I ended up going to Gatagara," Winnie recounted. "I asked, 'Can you tell me how I can get these lamps delivered on time? What can I do to help around here? If you need me to spend a week here, I'm more than willing."

Realising that manufacturers would only deliver the pieces once the entire firing room was full, rather than making one piece at a time, Winnie had an epiphany. She understood that to create art, she needed to become the artist. From the moment she laid her hands on a piece of clay, it was as if a seed had finally found the perfect soil to thrive and blossom, unleashing Winnie's creativity and bringing her vision to life.

"As I became more involved in the pottery process," explained Winnie, "I found myself increasingly interested in the craft. And so when COVID-19 struck and everything shut down, I finally had the opportunity to slow down and focus on it. This gave me a chance to read and learn more about pottery and its various techniques. Luckily, I had a friend who knew a thing or two about pottery and encouraged me to keep practising it. She said, 'Pottery is the best thing you can do right now because everyone is going crazy. It's very meditative and relaxing, and I think you'll enjoy the process.'"

Vases showcased with intricately moulded Ingabo shields in the foreground. Photo by Cynthia Butare.

With each day, Winnie’s passion for the craft grew stronger, and she poured herself into learning new techniques and refining her skills. Soon, her love for ceramics blossomed into a full-scale business venture. Through her work, Winnie carries on the legacy of the country's craftsmanship and showcases the unique charm of her art. But for Winnie, pottery is more than just an artistic endeavour. It's a soulful expression of her innermost self, a spiritual journey that connects her to her craft and the deep-rooted love and respect she has for her heritage. Her pieces are a reflection of her intense focus on detail and an unshakable reverence for the culture that has inspired her, resulting in a series of masterpieces that radiate with the very soul of Rwanda.

This article was originally published on the author's blog.

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