For his one man exhibition titled “Refuge”, photographer Christian Mbanza, better known as Chris Schwagga, settles for motorcycle helmets as the main materials to convey his message.
The helmets come in different shades of colour, with creative embellishments like protruding hair and wire connections, while others adorn human heads, creating an aura of anonymity about the wearer.
Poetic would be an understatement in describing “Refuge”, which runs till March 30, at the Innovation Village, located at the rooftop of the Kigali Public Library.
It is a welcome deviation from the usual exhibitions that feature sellable art pieces. In this exhibition, Schwagga transcends his hard-earned reputation as an experienced lens man, coming across as an all-round creative.
Schwagga was born in Burundi, his home country, but part of his upbringing was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to political turmoil back home, he currently lives in Rwanda. ‘Refuge’ is his own way of paying homage to his new host country, but he hastens to add that the exhibition “is inspired by different things and people as well”.
Against this background, the artist deliberately chooses to steer clear of the negative aspects usually associated with refugee status. One does not see pictures of hungry, emaciated children in tattered clothes proffering their hands for help.
He uses the helmets to convey a sense of connection – connection to self, to others, or to one’s surroundings.
One of the prominent installations consists of two helmets connected to a computer motherboard, which is symbolic of two people connected to technology. It could also symbolise a long distance relationship.
Another striking installation is of a black helmet surrounded by a crown of equally black coals, while next to it is a white helmet sprouting out of a backdrop of shattered glass.
“The narrative is not about this negative thing about being a refugee. Rwanda is one of the best places to live in as a refugee because of the security,” Schwagga says.
“Refuge could be a person, a moment, a journey, a place both mental and physical. It’s peace, calm, safety, a home far away from home, or a home inside home.”
In a way, Refuge is the sum total of Schwagga’s observations and viewpoint as an artist who is grateful for his newfound home (Rwanda).
“For the past couple of years, the Land of a Thousand Hills has been my refuge. It has challenged me, and seen me grow both personally and professionally,” Schwagga notes.
He adds: “My circumstances had me wondering about the relationship between humans and their refuge, and how that connection (good or bad) shapes or at least influences how they deal with situations.
“This exhibition is dedicated to Rwanda and its people for making this journey away from home feel more like home. I am infinitely grateful and do not take this chance for granted.”