DISPELLING THE STIGMA OF RWANDAN MEN'S EMOTIONS:A CONVERSATION WITH FASHION DESIGNER MOSES TURAHIRWA
After graduating from the prestigious Polimoda Fashion School, Moses Turahirwa gained a new skill set to support his ever longing for his heritage. As such, the Imandwa Collection marked his return to Rwanda with such a bang. Presented to the public through a 3-day exhibition, the collection honoured the Rwandan culture while exploring gender fluidity and toxic masculinity — a combo that initially surprised me when receiving the invitation.
“Is it relevant to talk about gender fluidity and toxic masculinity in Rwanda?” I asked Moses.
A few days before the exhibition, he was kind enough to allocate a full hour in his busy schedule leading to the event to take me through it. His fashion store Moshions was busy with staff and event management working around the clock. Backstage, there were fashion figures drawing ideas taped to the wall — fabric everywhere but orderly folded. Tape measures, sewing machine bobbins, sewing threads, and beads, but absolutely no hint revealed what the Imandwa collection would look like. So obviously, I was very intrigued.
“By doing research, I came to realise that the perception of masculinity has significantly altered in Rwandan modern society,” answered Moses.
“Talking about fashion, you would be surprised how fluid clothing used to be,” he continued. “Looking at Mutara III Rudahigwa and other kings that have reigned, garments fastened around the waist and hanging down around the legs was normal. So when wearing traditional mushanana, their masculinity wouldn’t be questioned. When wearing dramatic long umugara, their masculinity wouldn’t be questioned. When wearing beads or jewellery, their masculinity wouldn’t be questioned. Therefore, as a fashion designer, it’s been interesting to me to look at how we’ve been losing our culture through what we wear today and our ability to express ourselves.”
When the 3-day exhibition kicked off, I arrived early as I usually do when I gather content to get a sense of the space and spot the first b-roll footage I’d like to capture. While the guests were invited for a welcome drink, I was allowed to go inside to begin filming. Inside, I suddenly found myself in a world rich in textures and surface variations. The venue had rooms, each with its own distinctive atmosphere: one filled with terracotta pots laying on the floor in the corner, one with small grass-thatched houses with black crows hanging from the ceiling, and another with shiny red beans stuck together making a 7-feet circled wall — all conceptualised by longtime friend Cedric Mizero.
As the night fell and guests were all present, the host Jeanine Munyeshuli delivered introductory words followed by Moses’ emotional welcome speech.
“This collection is an artistic dream for us to reimagine what fashion can be: free from expectations and beyond norms we may have,” said the designer. “I am so proud of the Imandwa collection because it represents so much of what I believe about the world, my place in it, and my country’s future.”
I was discovering a much softer side of Moses I had never seen before.
When interviewing him, I thought I had been too intrusive asking how the topic of toxic masculinity was personal to him. He shared with me that when he was young, he felt that he had to honour the expectations that had been foisted upon him. Raised by a traditional Christian family in the western part of Rwanda, he was a good student succeeding at one school over another, from boarding school in Rusizi, boarding school in Butare to then graduating from The Integrated Polytechnic Regional College (IPRC). While studying civil engineering in Kigali, this is where he started modelling, developing an interest in the fashion industry, taking a path that is not necessarily accepted as being masculine in Rwanda. It was in 2015 that he launched his fashion brand Moshions.
“Young men get pressured to conform to some kind of mould, even if it doesn’t align with who they are,” confessed Moses. “Such things truly touch my heart because this is what prevents people from living their authentic selves. And this is what I try to express through my craft.“
As Moses was taking the first batch of visitors through the exhibition, an immersive experience revealed itself where Rwandan masculinity is reimagined and re-embodied. And a few elements that were not there, when I initially had a peek at the exhibition, suddenly gave the space a whole other flavour dimension from Bill Ruzima’s traditional singing in high notes, vibrant colours of the attires to the live models’ performance giving a clear nod to men’s vulnerability.
“The exhibition starts here with this look,” started Moses looking at the model.
Blended in the installation of hand-dyed blue bricks piled on top of each other, the model’s presence was owning the room. His performance was bringing out, even more, the grace, delicacy, and vulnerability of Moses’ work. As soon as Moses finished introducing the look, the model theatrically removed his wooden ancestral mask, which was hiding his emotions, to look at us straight in the eyes and convey powerful emotions.
“The magenta colour that we see on the bottom of the shirt,” continued Moses, “is obtained from cochineal’s extract. I actually dyed all of the fabrics of the Imandwa collection through natural ingredients to connect to this idea of authenticity in a world where everything is getting superficial.”
The rest of the exhibition featured five other looks. When the attires were not pink, they were blue, which Moses obtained from Indigo-bearing plants using an ancestral method consisting of boiling the leaves in water to make them soluble so that they can impregnate the textile. Each of the looks equally created a daring interplay of traditional and contemporary aesthetics. A model wore a long drape in homage to the traditional mushanana, another had the effigy of King Mutara III Rudahigwa wearing an amasunzu hairstyle knitted over a woolen jumper, a third was dressed in a structured blazer covered with the silhouette of Queen Gicanda with combed hair in the Uruhanika hairstyle tied with an ibyanganga.
What struck me the most with the Imandwa exhibition is his ability to use his art to comment on a social issue while contextualising it to the Rwandan context. Hence, his interpretation of masculinity was carried out with one clear underlying objective: looking at the culture to dismantle today’s gender roles attached to clothing to expand the scope in which men can freely express themselves. As such, hosting an exhibition, as opposed to the usual runway, enabled Moses to present his work as art. And as an artist, he truly succeeded at making the visitors reflect and rethink their take on manhood.
Moses raised the bar for the entire creative industry. I left the exhibition energised to develop a voice with my own craft, which I hope one day can be as strong to stand for what I believe in.