Kigali’s Ivuka Arts Centre 

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On a back street in central Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the Ivuka Arts Centre shows the work of 14 artists. Jean-Baptiste Mpungirehe showed the gallery/workshop to Stephen Williams.

It was perhaps not the ideal day to visit the Ivuka Arts Centre in the central Kigali’s residential district of Kaciyru, as the centre was getting itself prepared for a major exhibition at the US Embassy in the city the next day.

But with the unfailing good grace and politeness that I had grown accustomed to during my stay in this East African capital, Jean-Baptiste Mpungirehe broke off from what he was doing that day to show me around the small townhouse that now serves as the centre for 14 artists who work and show their art there.

Ivuka’s founder is the artist Collin Sekajugo, who was born in Uganda and raised in Kenya, and has made community activism his forte, setting up Saturday art classes at three orphanages in Kigali, and creating a music and dance troupe for disadvantaged children called RwaMakondera.

 

 

 

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He opened the Ivuka Arts Centre in 2007 (Ivuka means in Kinyarwanda “to be born”), and it has received considerable international recognition in the intervening years.

Not only has Kigali’s diplomatic community bought into the whole idea of the Ivuka Centre (such as the US Embassy staging an exhibition of the centre’s work), but the departure lounge at Kigali’s international airport has pieces on show, in order to catch the eye of the international passengers that pass by. International exposure was also increased when the Charlie Dutton Gallery in London exhibited a show in 2011, titled “Rwanda,” featuring eight Ivuka Arts artists.

As the gallery itself said: “Artwork can empower Rwandans to cross their own frontiers into an international dialogue and cultural exchange, while inviting others to understand the broader landscape of the newest member of the Commonwealth.”

Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009. Sekajugo’s approach to developing arts to serve the community has been replicated by several other artists who, having begun their artistic careers at Ivuka, have gone on to set up galleries and art centres in Kigali of their own – including the Inema Arts Centre, Bwiza Arts Kigali and Uburanga Arts. These all owe a debt of gratitude to Ivuka for Sekajugo blazing a trail that they followed.

Today, the Ivuka Arts Centre is a sea of creativity. On display are a large number of paintings and sculptures; so many paintings in fact that many are just stacked on the floor, leaning against the walls. Viewers and prospective buyers are invited to look through them and select what they would like to see in particular. The styles tend to be abstract and exuberant, although some have a more figurative inclination. In general, the colours are bright and uninhibited.

The house is too small to show the major sculptures indoors, so the surrounding concrete terraces serve that purpose. Beginning with a giant flask-like sculpture that greets the visitor on arriving at the house, made from recycled glass bottles and concrete, inside the centre the three dimensional works are mainly made of wire frames and “found” materials.

Jean-Baptiste Mpungirehe was particularly proud of a wire sculpture that he had assembled. Standing some four feet high, its heart shaped form was adorned with pink condom packets. “It was my way of celebrating Valentine’s Day last February, and AIDS day,” he explained with a chuckle. Other works kept with the flask theme and demonstrated remarkable verve and freedom.

Such freedom of expression seems a comparatively rare commodity in Rwanda where conformity, discipline and regimen seem to be highly prized by the administration.

But the impression given by the Ivuka Arts Centre is one of a youthful, unbridled celebration of creativity, and a yearning of the young people who are involved with it to break free of the almost automatic association of their country with the genocide of 20 years ago.

That is not to say that Rwanda’s youth simply wish to forget their history, far from it. And despite the government’s best efforts, there does seem to be a lingering sense that ethnicity could again raise its ugly head in the pressure cooker society that is today’s Rwanda.

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But in a sense, it is as if the genocidal era belongs to another generation and the youth want to move on with their lives. It helps when you realise that most of the artists at Ivuka Arts Centre were either yet to be born, or were very young at the time of the brutal killings of 1994. And for many, coming to terms with that awful past can be easily accommodated with the therapeutic activity of creativity.

For the visitor to Kigali, the Ivuka Arts Centre makes a welcome counterpoint to the atmosphere of Kigali’s major tourist draw – the Genocide Memorial Centre.

On a visit to the Memorial Centre, partly opened for the first time 10 years ago, in 2004, it was truly moving to experience the care and sensibility of the place, built on the graves of a quarter of a million souls who perished during the genocide.

The Windows of Hope in the Memorial Centre, stained glass tributes to those that died, were particularly inspiring, with the bright African sun illuminating their colourful designs.

I had fallen into conversation with a visitor from Zimbabwe who, as we viewed the show cases of skulls and bones, shook his head sadly and commented that in his culture, this would never be allowed. “We believe,” he said, “that our ancestors’ spirits will never rest until their bones are placed in the earth.” That said, we both agreed that the Genocide Memorial Centre was an exceptional tribute to those who lost their lives in the genocide, said to have been Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

As in many African countries, many of the youth feel themselves to be marginalised from society, with the lack of employment and opportunities. But Ivuka is living testament that with vision and determination, it is possible to turn the corner and establish a purpose and, of course, the all-important means to earn a living.

As Sekajugo himself says: “In 2007 ours was just a dream where the light we foresaw gave us hope and courage, which today has transformed not only ours but many other lives. Visit our centre to learn about the true renaissance of Rwandan art.”

 

Source: New African Magazine

 

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