Rwanda’s Artistic Renaissance

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I am sitting in the highly acclaimed Heaven Restaurant, Kiyovu district, Kigali. Night has fallen. Behind me lights sparkle across gentle hills and undulating canyons. In front of me a Rwandan jazz band is playing – urbane, tight and soulful. The food is delicious – an international menu prepared with traditional Rwandan ingredients. Tonight, however, I am not here to enjoy the delights of live music and fine dining: I have come to witness the opening of Rwanda’s first ever art gallery.

The gallery is located at the front of the restaurant. Its walls painted with colourful rectangles: you cannot miss it. According to Innocent Nkurunziza, cofounder of the gallery and Inema Arts Centre, “Today marks an incredible milestone not only for Inema, but for our country. The Inema Gallery at Heaven Restaurant will be Rwanda’s first gallery exclusively devoted to the sale of art.” – big news for a country that just twenty years ago experienced the most efficient episode of genocidal massacre the world has ever seen.

Since the 1994 apocalypse Rwanda has enjoyed a higher level of economic growth and development than just about any of its neighbours. The roads are now smooth, buildings are being constructed, business is thriving, the land is cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. And, even more surprisingly, the country has started to undergo something of an artistic renaissance.

Historically Rwanda has not been a country known for its artistic flamboyance: the main tourist attractions being gorilla tracking in the Volcanoes National Park and Kigali Genocide Memorial. In 2006, however, in an attempt to boost the country’s waning tourist industry, the Government of Rwanda decided to open a contemporary art museum in the king’s former palace in Nyanza, about 35km South West of Kigali, stimulating a flourish of creative activity across the country.

Kigali’s first art studio “Ivuka Arts” was established in Kacyiru district in 2007. There are now four major art studios in the capital city alone. A distinctive “Rwandese style” – a fusion of contemporary Western techniques and traditional Rwandan images – has also begun to emerge, the fruits of which resemble Central African versions of Picasso and Matisse. Nor do Rwanda’s artists go without critical acclaim: their works have been displayed in exhibitions across the world – from Boston, to London, to Johannesburg, to Kampala.

As you walk through Inema Gallery at Heaven Restaurant you are hit by a barrage of colours from every direction – deep reds, acid greens, banana yellows, an assortment of blues. I cannot help but be impressed by the audacity of the artworks on display here. Kalungi Godrey’s joyful depictions of Kigali’s bustling street life are surely the most exciting pieces on offer (Godfrey’s dramatic interpretation of Nyabugogo bus stop is a person favourite). The more modern art collector may be drawn to Innocent Nkurunziza’s “Source of Energy” – a psychedelic mass of colours, swirling towards a black whole at the centre.

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On the other side of town in the affluent suburb of Nyarutarama is Yego Arts Studio. Founded by Tony Cyizanye in 2012, it is home to twelve artists. The gates at the entrance are decorated with an enticing mixture of yellows and reds, alongside two black elephants and four large birds. Tony’s three most recent works – “Remember”, “Unite” and “Renew” – pay an affecting tribute to the people who died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Antonio Nshimiyimana, another artist working at Yego, specialises in abstract portraits, capturing both the beauty and the mystique of Rwandese culture with an astonishing level of technical skill and creative flair.

Although Kigali’s art studios are profit-making businesses, they also operate as social enterprises, nurturing local talent and giving back to communities as much as they receive. The main four art studios in Kigali, for example, employ almost fifty artists between them: prior to finding employment at the studios, many of these artists were without jobs, living on the streets.

Inema and Ivuka Art studios run weekly workshops where children from a variety of social and economic backgrounds can come to hone their creative skills, and enjoy themselves in a safe and secure environment. The best of the children’s artwork is then sold to tourists and the revenue generated put aside for school fees. Traditional Rwandan dance troops also practice at the studios three times a week. Yego Arts Studio provides a space for women’s cooperatives to sell their homemade trinkets and crafts, thus providing them with an additional source of income.

The therapeutic potential of art cannot be dismissed in the context of Rwanda. Jean Bosco Bakunzi, founder of Uburanga Arts Studio, believes that, “art has the power to heal people, and the world, physically, mentally and emotionally.” And, being a survivor of the 1994 genocide, it is likely that Jean Bosco understands this better than most people.

Directly after the 1994 genocide, economic development and social security were an absolute priority in Rwanda; it is only now after a period of peace and relative prosperity that people are beginning to pursue activities non-essential to their survival, such as art, poetry, music and dance. It is only now, essentially, that the people of Rwanda are starting to regain the sense of culture and civilisation that they so tragically lost twenty years ago.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, July 3rd 2014

A version of this article was published in Independent Magazine (http://www.independent.co.ug/society/society/9153-rwandas-artistic-renaissance)

 

 

 

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Say NO to Stop the War

Y E S T E R D A Y  M O R N I N G  I received an invitation to join the Stop the War Coalition(STWC) in a demonstration to demand no military action be taken in response to the chemical attacks carried out in Syria by the Assad regime last week. If you hadn’t heard, according to Medecins Sans Frontiers, these attacks have claimed the lives of over 350 people and have left at least 3600 wounded in Syria’s Capital, Damascus. Although these acts of aggression seem to have provoked a greater possibility of Western intervention than previous atrocities, last weeks attacks are just one example of a plethora of egregious acts of violence carried out by the Baathist dictatorship over the last two and a half years.

So far Britain and the United States has failed to take any meaningful action against Bashar al-Assad and his criminal gang for the carnage they have enacted against the Syrian people. However, since the chemical slaughter last week, William Hauge and David Cameron both seem to be taking the idea of military intervention significantly more seriously. My intention in writing this short essay is to persuade those of you who are undecided as to whether you will attend the STWC’s demonstration that, in the case of Syria, military intervention is—and has been for a long while —a worthwhile cause.

At present, a targeted aerial raid on specific buildings of critical military importance to the Assad regime seems the most likely form of intervention; talk of a boots-on-the-ground intervention in similar fashion to the 2003 invasion of Iraq remains distinctly subdued. In agreement with what seems to be the majority of The House of Commons, I believe that the former of these options is morally justifiable while the later would most likely prove to be too bold a move.

There is now a whole body of evidence strongly suggesting that, prior to the most recent incident in Damascus, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has launched at least 14 chemical attacks. Contrary to what the Russians, Iranians and the Chinese would have you believe, there is no evidence that these attacks were carried out by Syrian rebel forces. I quote the British Joint Intelligence Committee:

It is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale. The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.

Damning evidence, I know. Although surely it does not take a statement from the British Joint Intelligence Committee to determine that an underfunded and divided rebel force doesn’t have the capacity to carry out a massive chemical attack on the scale of last Wednesday’s? Well, not if you place yourself in the same camp as those who seem to think the whole of the Syrian revolution is a master plan thought up by US and Israeli neo-cons to secure global domination. And, trust me, I have seen numerous comments of this nature across the internet. One “commentator” went as far as to suggest that president Assad is a “rational actor” and would not have been so “irrational” as to use chemical weapons in the first place.

To discard such intellectual rubbish into the dustbin of history I urge you to consider the dark and sadistic record of the Assad regime since the Syrian Revolution began in 2011. At its genesis the revolution was characterised by peaceful protest in favour of democracy and a genuine desire to obtain a better life for all Syrians. Based on this “threat”, the Baathist regime of Mr Assad decided the appropriate response was to gun down scores of innocent civilians. Since then, according to Human Rights Watch, SCUD missiles have been used indiscriminately by the regime to target civilian areas. Importantly, the areas targeted were not in the vicinity of any military installations controlled by the rebel forces. Human rights watch investigated nine such attacks between February and July killing at least 215 people, including over 100 children, and concluded that the attacks constituted a war crime. To suggest that the man is incapable or unwilling to use chemical weapons against the people of Syria is either mendacious or to ignore the mountains of evidence that suggest otherwise.

There are those who will argue the case against Western military intervention whatsoever, usually in an attempt to avoid an imperialistic foreign policy. I assume that most of the STWC would willingly place themselves in this camp. However, history has proven that those who tread the ideological path of the anti-war movement do not always reach the moral high ground. George Orwell was particularly instructive on this point in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism”:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.

On Saturday, when I see anti-war protesters brandishing the flag of Bashar al-Assad and loudly denouncing Western military intervention in Syria, I cannot help but think that the majority of the STWC will resemble the younger intellectual pacifists Orwell mentions. These supposed “human rights activists” are most likely beyond persuasion. To those pacifists who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point, I urge you to consider the following: What happened in Rwanda in 1994 in the absence of military intervention? Nearly one million Tutsi’s were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in the most horrific incident of genocide since the holocaust. What happened when the international community averted its gaze from Darfur in 2003? Up to 400,000 inhabitants of the Western Sudanese state were massacred and starved to death by the Government of Sudan and notorious Arab militia known as the Janjaweed. In Bosnia it took the planned extirpation of 5000 adult males in the small town of Srebrenica by Serbian ethnic cleansers to prompt international military action. At the time of the genocide in Srebrenica over 200,000 Bosnians had already died as a result of the expansionist and racist policies of Slobodan Milosevic. Fortunately NATO missiles put an end to Milosevic’s killing spree in 1999.

When the evidence of massacres in Syria is so strong, at least as strong as in the incidence of mass murder I mention above, I ask you to ask yourselves: is pacifism still a reasonable option? At what point is it time to say that enough is enough in Syria? I hope, dear reader, you will agree with me when I say that that time is now. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime cannot and should not go unpunished. Britain must send a message to Assad and the rest of the world that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. This message will inevitably involve some form of military intervention. Obviously a UN mandate for intervention would be desirable; however, if this is not obtained, there is little alternative but for the UK, USA and France to go in alone.

 

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, August 8th, 2013

Reinventing Growth

O U T  O F  T H E  S W A M P of destruction left by World War II came the concept of gross domestic product, or GDP. Its pursuit has defined global economic strategy for over sixty years. But what has this achieved?

Literally millions of people have been freed from the shackles of poverty, with enormous benefits for humanity: healthcare has improved, literacy rates have increased and infant mortality has plummeted. We have even managed – on several occasions – to send men and women to the moon! There are, however, a huge number of people dissatisfied with the reigning model of progress. How could this be?

Inequality is greater today than at any point in human history. A study by the United Nations found that the richest 1% of people own more wealth than the poorest 95% combined. In addition, the huge material throughput required to maintain growth-based economies is starting to have consequences of its own: natural resources are becoming scarce and environmental sinks overloaded (indeed, anthropogenic climate change may well prove to be the greatest challenge our species ever face).

We are essentially confronted with a paradox: on the one hand we must stimulate growth in order to reduce poverty and maintain economic stability, whilst on the other hand we must constrain growth in order to avoid crossing dangerous ecological limits. Could this be the ultimate Catch-22? Or, is it possible, as I believe, to reinvent growth in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and socially equitable?

To reinvent growth in order for it to respect the principle of environmental sustainability, we would need to reduce the ecological burden of growth to within acceptable limits. This could be achieved through two measures: firstly, more environmentally sustainable technologies, such as low (or even zero) carbon energy sources, should be adopted on a global scale; secondly, natural resources, such as fisheries and forests, must be harvested in a way that maintains long-term ecosystem viability.

To reinvent growth in order for it to be socially equitable, the wealth gap between rich and poor countries must be dramatically reduced. This does not necessarily mean the incomes of people living in Europe or North America must decline; it only requires the incomes of those people living in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-America to increase at a faster rate. Large-scale investments in agriculture, healthcare, education, infrastructure and sustainable technologies across the developing world (alongside a more equitable system of global trade) are essential if this is to be achieved.

Since World War II, the pursuit of GDP growth has achieved huge gains in human welfare: we must now reinvent the way in which we grow to tackle the most pressing economic, environmental and social issues of the 21st Century. Although significant, the investments required to achieve this ambitious goal are manageable. The real challenge lies in achieving the necessary degree of cooperation between governments, businesses, civil society and academics to bring about change. This would not be the first time that such large-scale collaboration has been required: it was only sixty years ago, remember, that Europe was on to the brink of total destruction; today, reassuringly, the continent is home to the most peaceful, democratic and prosperous societies on earth.

Fergus Simpson

 Guildford, July 15th 2014