Art Lessons From the Land of a Thousand Hills

When I feel down and disillusioned, when the world is gray, unicorns stop pooping skittles, the future seems uncertain and all I do feels lame, I travel to Rwanda. In my head. Gasp, you may say, Rwanda – the land of genocide, gorillas and god knows what. In this region, Rwanda is known as the land of thousand hills.

It will probably take Rwanda at least an extra decade to shake off the genocide connotations, because future generations will not learn much history at school about people with machetes who ran around and slaughtered their neighbours. But after all, the genocide memorial in Kigali will stand there forever, reminder of the times of sorrow, and the horrors of genocide will echo in the art of Rwandan creative crowd for a couple of generations to come.

For such a small country, Rwanda has an unbelievable amount of art galleries. If you go to a standard tourist market anywhere in eastern Africa, most of the stuff you buy is probably made in China, a lame attempt to imitate traditional African crafts. However, in the last decade, a lot of international companies and non-profits directed their attention to the unique skills and imagination of Rwandan artists, jewelers and sculptors to provide them with support and opportunity to make a living out of their artwork. Fashion industry is slowly crawling into the world of fair trade, and such brands as Kate Spade are opening their projects in Rwanda to produce high-quality accessories and provide employment to local women in Masoro town. There is also a successful local startup, Inzuki Designs, that distributes traditional Rwandan jewelry around the world through their online gallery and stores.yego arts

Rwanda’s National Art Gallery is located in Nyanza, half-way between Kigali and Burundian border. It is, to my knowledge, the only government-run gallery in the country, housing sculptures and installations by artists from all over Africa. As for other galleries, they are privately-operated cooperatives in Kigali. For the most part, they operate not only as exhibition spaces, but also as community centers for children and adult art education, providing professional training and supporting local orphanages.

What’s bizarre, peculiar and fantastic about East African art, is the way traditional motifs are intertwined with absolutely modernist approach, folkloric patterns are sewn into the fabric of surrealism and imagination of the artists, and many installation are created with recycled materials. All this is even more surprising if you consider that almost none of the members of the art community ever attended a formal art school – simply because those are non-existent in Kigali.

Credit: Yego Arts Gallery

Back in 2013, when I spent a few weeks in Rwanda, I met Claudine. I believe it was one of those serendipitous moments when you meet a person just for a short while, and perhaps never see them after this, but in a matter of days or even hours they manage, maybe unconsciously, to teach you a few essential life lessons. Claudine’s artistic and personal story has been my inspiration ever since. Back then, she worked at Yego Arts Gallery and had her own workshop to create jewelry and sew bags. ‘I never really studied my craft anywhere, because we do not have art schools in Rwanda, but my uncle is a sculptor and an artist’, Claudine told me. The artistic skills, be it drawing, jewelry making, or sewing craft, are all taught at cooperatives and passed to younger generations from more experienced artisans. ‘As a child, I just liked creating things and kept practicing and copying different types of jewelry to see how it is made,’ after secondary school, Claudine started working at a women’s cooperative as a translator: surely, her knowledge of Kinyarwanda, French and English came in handy. One person she worked with was Deborah, a foreign development worker who believed in Claudine’s talent and helped her set up her artistic practice and business. You can now visit Claudine’s professional page on Facebook here.

At Claudine’s home, there are dozens of photographs. I do not feel comfortable asking too many questions about 1994, but I still ask. ‘I cannot remember much about the genocide. I was small, and with my aunt, she was just 18. She had to carry me on her back to a safe shelter, but at some point we were separated, and the end of that year I spent in an orphanage by myself,’ Claudine shows me the pictures of some of the relatives, pointing out who has made it through the genocide, and who has never returned home. ‘I lost my grandparents, whom I lived with, and many aunts and cousins. It was terrible, even though I have no conscious memory of those events’. The photographs, they have been gathered from old family albums. Because you don’t want to forget those you lost. ’Sometimes, foreign friends tell me about their grandparents, or even great grandparents, and for a moment I think: wow, how come? And then realise that it’s just here, in Rwanda, most of the older generation were killed in 1994, and nowadays not many people have grandparents’.

So, you must have had a supportive family who helped you to become the artist you are now, I ask.

Some of Claudine's artwork
Some of Claudine’s artwork

13 is a tough age. Age of self-destruction and self-determination. Most teenagers have a lot of issues by then, and 13 is not the best age to add more to the pile of raging hormones and confusing puberty. When Claudine was around 13, her mother died. As if that wasn’t hard enough, she soon discovered that it was not actually her biological mother, but her aunt, while her biological mother had given her up right after birth, simply because she did not need a child born out of wedlock on her hands. ‘I talked to my mother then, and she already was married to somebody, and had other children. She just admitted that she had never wanted to raise me, and that her new family meant a world to her,’ Claudine explains.

I would have felt devastated.

‘I felt devastated. But after all, she was never a real mother to me in the first place,’ Claudine continues the story. ’So I decided not to cry. I liked making jewelry, I liked creating art, I had an aunt and cousin to live with. At certain point I simply understood that I should never allow my parents – and I never even knew my father – to determine who *I* am going to be in the future. I am what I am, and I have my hands, I have my head on my shoulders. I never turned back since’.

We love talking about mother or father complex in our lives. We enjoy blaming our parents for not raising us the right way, or not raising us at all. We find excuses for pretty much any failure in abandonment issues, and voluntarily let the burden of the people who generated our DNA pull us down with them.

Today, Claudine is a successful manager for art projects in a foreign company, is raising her own family and doing the art she has always wanted to be part of.

In this single story, I believe, lies a possible answer to the question that has been bothering me ever since I travelled to Rwanda and got to know more about its history. Imagine living next to somebody who probably killed your grandparents. ‘Probably’ is the key word here, because you may never know for sure: there will always be rumours and finger-pointing, but nothing more. The generation that lived through every moment of the genocide of 1994 and survived – they might be deeply damaged. But those young Rwandan artists who remember the event only from the stories told on the old black-and-white photographs, they’ve moved on. They will never forget, and shadows of the genocide of 1994 will be forever present in the paintings and sculptures the artists create to reflect upon the world around them. But shadows will remain shadows, and in Rwanda that is here and now, art was chosen as a way of peaceful transformation rather than the means of recycling the country’s painful history.

Check out some of Rwanda’s art galleries – on their websites, or better in person when you book that flight to Kigali.

Yego Arts center

Ivuka Arts Kigali

Inema Arts Center

Uburanga Arts Studio


2 Comments Add yours

  1. psychanaut says:

    Astonishing, thank you.

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