He currently owns Nziza Artworks, Art with a Mission and Inema Dance troupe, which he says aim to create opportunities for Rwanda’s most unprivileged to develop livelihoods in the creative arts.
INNOCENt Nkurunziza reveals his laid back demeanor as he supervises women who are rolling beads in African print material for his art works. In my mind, there is no doubt that I am looking at a true artist. He stares past the patio outside as he runs his palm through his neat dreadlocks. It is easy to assume that he is drawing inspiration from the shapes of the clouds.
Going back to the beginning, Innocent Nkurunziza was born and bred in Uganda. Together with his family, he moved to Gahini in Kayonza District, Eastern Province, when he was 11. In 2001, two events – one tragic and one inspirational – occurred that would prove to be the turning point of his life.
Firstly, Nkurunziza’s mother passed away from a heart attack. However, an unlikely encounter with a Cambridge University professor would change his life forever. George Hicks had just come to Rwanda to conduct an art workshop for children, which Nkurunziza attended. Hicks’s three months-long classes began with about 80 children. But after the second month, Nkurunziza was the only one left. During the workshop, he learned critical skills that would later influence his most significant work – lessons on mixing colours, studies of light and darkness and how to create watercolours, landscapes and still-life paintings.
Now in his late 20s, Nkurunziza’s art has long been popular in Rwanda. Today, his art works have featured more than once in American exhibition galleries and he seems set to make his mark on the international visual art scene.
Nkurunziza confesses that art has always been his passion. He reminisces the day he put his dream onto paper: “It all started when I was in Primary One. I was about 5 years old. I did an illustration of my mum walking me and my sibling to school in a drawing exam and emerged the best. This garnered me countless presents from my teachers. From that time on, I got a conviction that art was the career for me.”
With maturity came experimentation with diverse art materials. He also began to burn crayons to make paint. This was when his conviction that he was meant to be an artiste was cemented.
As to where he draws his inspiration, Nkurunziza says he does not have to look very far. To him, humanity is a great source of inspiration.
“I am moved by smiling faces of people, patterns of colours and textures within my world. These are the bases from which my art is derived,” he says with a benevolent smile on his face.
He goes on: “Art has always been a refuge in my self-expression, healing in times of depression – a result of losing my dear mum when I was still very young. Art has helped me face and overcome several challenges.”
Nkurunziza currently owns Nziza Artworks, Art with a Mission and Inema Dance troupe, which he says aim to create opportunities for Rwanda’s most unprivileged to develop livelihoods in the creative arts.
At In Art with a Mission, he works hand-in-hand with orphanage centres to mentor students in art. And he also has a heart for widows. At his workshop, he trains and employs Rwandan craftswomen. The on-site workshop bustles daily with women sowing, beading and finishing bespoke pieces – from Kitenge pillow covers to goat leather handbags.
“Everything in Nziza Showroom is produced by women. It’s incredibly important for us to provide outlets for these amazingly talented women,” he says.
However, Nkurunziza bemoans the lack of art equipment in the country. Because of this, he is forced to import them from abroad. Also, he says that his clientele is limited to tourists and the expat community because native Rwandans do not have love for art.
He hopes that in ten years’ time, Imena will be an international organisation, opening outlets around the world, employing countless orphans and representing Rwanda’s culture globally.