Genocide survivor takes to painting message of love

FOUR STUNNING paintings on canvasses adorn the four walls of Shadrack Kayiranga’s sitting room in Kacyiru, a Kigali suburb.
Kayiranga at work. (Joseph Oindo)
Kayiranga at work. (Joseph Oindo)

FOUR STUNNING paintings on canvasses adorn the four walls of Shadrack Kayiranga’s sitting room in Kacyiru, a Kigali suburb.

One marquee piece stands out prominently on a large canvass, a painting depicting the fearsome lion at peace with a coy zebra, elephant, rhino and deer without the wild belligerence that’s normally the hallmark of the animal kingdom.

“This painting symbolises how human beings can co-exist peacefully without attacking each other over mundane things like ethnic identity. Nature provides us with abundance and God must be upset when we resort to killing each other over natural resources,” he says.

The other painting is about a group of flamingoes in a lake. “Look at these flamingoes. However many they are, they aren’t fighting each other because they know the water is so vast that one of them can’t drink it all. We should draw from nature to spread the gospel of love,” he says.

Shadrack’s life started sometime in July, 1984 in DR Congo where he was born.

His family of mother, father and six siblings lived as refugees.

“Living as refugees in Congo was not a bed of roses. We were daily reminded that we were foreigners. We didn’t have the normal structure of life that people living in their country of birth have, but at least we thanked God that we were alive,” he says.

He began his schooling in 1992, attending Nyakasanza Primary School. But one thing Shadrack remembers is that his neighborhood had a deeply entrenched tradition in arts and this would come to have a profound influence on him.

“I Knew art at the formative years of my life. I was quite absorbed by how artists there were making beautiful colorful masks, and the kind of magical paintings they were creating on canvasses. Thus when children my age were busy playing games like football, I would go into an arts studio and observe how they did it.”

The influence of art extended beyond studio. “I turned my books into drawing surfaces. I would draw some graffiti in any available wall. Any surface that could accommodate a drawing became my media,” he says.

His mother was a seamstress and Shadrack would draw her beautiful figures that she would embroider into equally beautiful patterns. “She used to tell me I had an artistic blood in me,” he says.

By this time, his father had passed away, in 1987, and the family harrowing experience with the shackles of poverty heightened. 

The tone of his voice changes into a somber whisper when describing how his mother unwittingly made a tragic decision to return to Rwanda, and how that decision was to prove to be a fatal one with the loss of his two siblings during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

“Mother wanted all of us to come back to Rwanda but I think from some divine influence, I refused, telling her that I had to complete my school term first.”

The mother did come, with two of his siblings and after only a few months, the genocide broke out. By this time, his mother had gone back to DRC but she had left behind the unfortunate two, who all ended in brutal death together with the rest of his maternal side of the family.

“I would also have died, and remembering my siblings and how they met their death is always a devastating experience for me. And the fact that my father had to die and be buried in exile often brings back some sad memories.”

The family eventually returned in 1995 after the country had been liberated from the merchants of death. 

For Shadrack, life had to begin afresh. He had to wait for two years to join school, and when he did he had to go back to P1 because when he came, he didn’t know Kinyarwanda language, the language of instruction at lower primary level.

But that was not the only setback that stalked his life. Where was art in Rwanda? Where were art studios and artists? While back in DRC, he could freely enter into any studio and learn from experienced artists.

A long search for a place he could enhance his passion began in earnest. 

Meanwhile, he immersed himself in books, culminating in him graduating with Electronic and Telecommunication certificate from Association of Don Bosco.

But not for one moment did his deep passion for art wane. After schooling, he was now free to restart his pursuit of where he could follow his dreams. And the chance came when a family friend called Martin Steele came into their frugal house and saw the enchanting drawings he had hanged on the walls.

“Martin told me I was highly talented and took me to Epa Binamungu, then running Inganzo arts workshop at KBC. After paying my fee and buying me a brush and paints, I began doing my apprenticeship under the grandfather of arts in Rwanda, Epa,” he says.

After four months, he was under tutelage of Geoffrey Kalonji, an established artist who taught him more skills. 

Then his big break came in 2011 when he visited Ivuka Arts Centre. “The first time I went to Ivuka, I patted my chest that this is where I want to be. Seeing all those people busy painting on large canvasses really fascinated me and I said in my heart that at long last, I had found the place I had wanted to be all my life.”

Ivuka was then breeding ground for artists who were later to spread their wings and help fly Rwanda’s then nascent arts industry high. 

“My cousin Emmanuel told me to join them at Ivuka and I never waited even for a moment to do so. He had already known me as an artist though Collins Sekajugo, Ivuka founder didn’t know me.”

He says that working with these experienced artists opened his eyes to more possibilities and helped him harness his artistic skills. 

Shadrack now works with acrylic paints on canvass and also the mix media on bitenge to draw patterns. He says that his art is influenced by nature and sometimes he visits game parks like AKagera National Park to go and sketch pictures that he later comes to draw. “I like the Africa landscape with its beautiful flora and fauna. It has had a profound influence on my artwork because I just like how nature is peaceful, serene and organised.”

With a prophetic voice, Shadrack says that art in Rwanda has great potential and due to the unprecedented growth it has gone over the last few years, the industry is going to become something big in future. 

“It started with Ivuka, and see how it has mutated with several arts centers now being opened in every nook and cranny of Kigali.”

The versatile artist challenges more Rwandans to appreciate arts and the government to take art seriously now and support the artists, helping them promote their pieces in international market, adding that this is also an opportunity through which the country not only preserves it’s natural heritage but it can also be used to attract more tourists.

Reading the bittersweet journey Shadrack Kayiranga has traveled, and seeing the beautiful pieces that he creates at most of his waking hours, the kind of adversity he has gone through and message of love he passes through his paintings, you are left musing that God is  able to turn the ugly and despised caterpillar into a beautiful and gay butterfly.


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