Natural Home Earth Mover: Lily Yeh

article image
Photo by John Costello
Lily Yeh believes art can spark social change.

Just back from three weeks in Rwanda, her luggage somewhere between Kigali and Philadelphia, Lily Yeh should be frazzled and exhausted. Instead, she sparkles as she talks about her latest project–creating a memorial for the victims of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

For nearly two decades, Yeh designed and built refuges of calm and beauty in one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. An artist and painter by training, Yeh used abandoned lots and crumbling walls as her canvas, creating murals, mosaics and gardens with the inspiration and sweat equity of local residents–children, especially. Her efforts eventually grew into the Village of Arts and Humanities and became a model for utilizing the arts to heal shattered communities.

The Rwandan genocide memorial–under the auspices of Yeh’s nonprofit Barefoot Artists–is her most ambitious international undertaking to date. Covering three-quarters of an acre, the memorial site was little more than a shack surrounded by scrub and underbrush. In its place, Yeh envisioned a flower-lined path leading to a monument inlaid with mosaics of flowers and angels. Beneath the monument, remains of the dead are interred in a “bone chamber.” Above, an inscription reads, “We will never forget you.”

To realize her vision, Yeh cajoled a construction company into donating its services. She scoured local stores for supplies and tools and trained villagers in color theory, design and mosaic work so they could complete the memorial after she left. It will be officially dedicated April 7, Rwanda’s national day of mourning.

“They need everything,” Yeh says of the impoverished villagers. Yet when asked what they most wanted, their unanimous response was a place to properly bury and remember their loved ones. Now, thanks to Yeh, they have that. “They feel the dead can rest in peace here,” she says.

To learn more about Yeh’s nonprofit arts organization, visit Barefoot Artists.