A columnist in The Sunday Times, Fred Ndoli, quoted a budding Rwandan artist, Fabien Akimana, observing that “Rwandans do not have an idea about art”, adding that most of the customers Akimana receives are always whites.Two corrections to this observation are necessary.
Rwandans have a very good and highly instinctive appreciation for art: Take the graceful lines of the Agaseke baskets which are unique and not found anywhere else in the whole world. Or take the architectural formats of traditional Rwanda houses and royal palaces.
The amazing thing is that the best African artists are the self-taught women who create art in the evenings after working all day in the farms with ordinary materials found around their compounds.
Art has different interpretations and purposes around the world: Westerners perceive art objects as “abstract expressions” to decorate their museums and libraries.
Africans however, including Rwandans, perceive art to be “functional tools” for their daily lives. Orientals add spiritual undertones to their art. Consequently for Africans and Orientals, art is never a commercial enterprise to be sold and bought impartially.
Rather art is a family-based skill passed down the biological lineages for the benefit of the whole community. One family makes bamboo objects, another crafts sisal products, another deals in wood, etc.
Therefore artists like Fabien Akimana must do what their counterparts are doing in other parts of Africa- namely developing “touristy” stuff for the external market to pay their expenses while developing more functional art pieces for their local market.
Coffin makers in Ghana are the best example so far. They make coffins aligned to the local Akan traditions, depicting the professional and business lifestyles of the deceased. You can even be buried in a brand new Mercedes-Benz at a very good price!