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.
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.
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)