Art pays, says grandpa of art in Rwanda

Pascal Bushayija will forever remain in the folklore of Rwandan art. When you visit his house in Rwezamenyo, Nyamirambo, you quickly arrive at one simply conclusion: Art pays. He has a big house. Inside the big compound is a garage with a four-wheel Toyota Prado parked in it.

Pascal Bushayija will forever remain in the folklore of Rwandan art. When you visit his house in Rwezamenyo, Nyamirambo, you quickly arrive at one simply conclusion: Art pays. He has a big house. Inside the big compound is a garage with a four-wheel Toyota Prado parked in it.

When I visited to interview him for this story, expected to see someone who is struggling as an artist. But he is not. When you go inside his house, you see that this is a person that painting has taken far. He lacks nothing.

I went to Nyamirambo looking for one Pascal Bushayija.  I talked to a motor cycle rider to take me to the home of “the painting artist.” “Oh, you want Pascal! I will take you there,” one rider told me as two others pulled along, telling me that they too knew Pascal.

That’s how Pascal is known, just by his name. When I meet him, I discover an amiable and easy going person. That was my first impression of him. “Welcome, he says as he hands me a cold drink.”

Pascal was born in 1957 in Gisenyi, Western Province. He started liking art when he was only a six-year-old child. That was when his eyes opened to the world.

“By then I used to draw anything I saw on the ground. If I saw a cow, I would just sketch its figure on the ground, if it was a goat, I would do the same. Art was running in my blood from when my eyes opened.’ 

By that time, he had not even started school. When he joined primary school, Pascal experienced different situations. “My parents and teachers wanted me to excel in other subjects other than art. But I was a kind of a person who spent more time drawing on the desk than writing in the books.”

During that time, his teachers and parents didn’t know what art was all about. Thus, he was forced to do it surreptitiously. “They didn’t know it but I used to do my art in secret on any surface; be it sisal or the toilets became a medium for me to express myself. And of course when I wrote or drew anything on any surface, I wouldn’t sign my name. I wanted to be anonymous for the sake of my security at that level.”

But did this early bug bite him for so long?  It looks like it did. “I passed primary school and when it was time to join senior secondary, I opted for Ecole d‘Arts in Nyundo, [a renowned school of art in Rubavu, Western Province]. My parents couldn’t believe that, but that was my choice, not theirs!”

Parents, and even teachers, told Pascal that he had no future doing arts. “But that was my passion. There was nothing they could do about it!” His elder brother had enrolled there as an art student and he says that he really influenced him into taking art.

At Nyundo, the parents came to realise that indeed art was his passion and let him pursue his dream. “They paid my fees and often came to visit me. They came to know that I was not cut out for anything, but art.”

At Nyundo, where he studied for six years, the first two years saw him learn basic courses before specialising later. When time to specialise came, Pascal chose painting. And that was it.

He says that out of 45 students who enrolled for art, only seven made it to the end; and he was among the seven.

What did you do after school? I ask him. “After school I worked with Pfunda Tea Factory. I used to do for them drawings and designs to advertise their products.”

But then, Pascal wanted to move on. Where? He went back to Nyundo, not as a student, but as a teacher and taught for 11 years.

When he was a teacher, he says, he used to do some art exhibitions in Kigali. “By that time, no one knew art in Rwanda. So, we used to do our exhibitions where white people were. For Rwandans, art was nothing—only whites could buy our art pieces.”

At the time when Pascal graduated and for all the years he taught, there was no art worth talking about in Rwanda. It was something that had never even lived in the first place, but had to be established.

Thus, he joined Epa Binamungu, whom he credits as the person who pioneered art in Rwanda. “Even though I had my own workshop, I did my apprenticeship under Epa. He taught me a lot.”

But this was a question I didn’t want to ask him, yet I had to. This was a person who was there before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and was already an artist. So I was forced to ask how that dark period in Rwanda’s history affected artists. “It was terrible. At that time I was teaching at Nyundo, but I know a couple of artists who died. Some of them used to be my fellow students. It was a dark period.”

Dark period indeed! But was art selling at that time? I ask immediately, seeing to it that he doesn’t want to talk about the dark period. “No. When we did our exhibitions, we used to have over 50 pieces but only one piece would sell. We were very disillusioned and frustrated but because we were passionate about art, we soldiered on,” he says.

He only counts four people who knew about art, including him and Binamungu. They therefore had to do something to pull people into art. Thus they started venturing into the countryside to tell parents that their children had a future in art, contrary to their popular belief. “It was not easy, but we had to do it. We had to take exhibitions out of Kigali deep into villages so that we could promote art. And the parents started listening.”

In order to give the parents hope that art was selling, Pascal had to show results. “I had done my exhibitions in Germany, France, and USA among other countries. So we had to educate them that you could go far with art.”

So how has art evolved in Rwanda over time? Back in the days, says Pascal, artists only knew about realism art, not abstract. “We used to do what we observed, unlike today when artists can do what they think.”

According to Pascal, there has been exponential growth of art in Rwanda.

At this point I recall and see art centers in every nook and cranny of Kigali. I see all those exhibitions being held now almost every weekend. 

However, I ask him if they were the vanguards of art in Rwanda, and Pascal smiles before he answers:  “We were. Art in Rwanda has come from far. It has come from where people had negative attitude about it. It has come from where our parents used to say that if you did art, you had no future. But now, people are making their future in art.”

But one thing keeps niggling in my mind. Pascal has a big compound; he owns that car associated with the crème de la crème of the society. When I look at the walls, I see a photo of him and his smiling wife on their wedding day and his two smiling and obviously successful daughters. No doubt this is a successful man.

It pokes me to ask him if all the success he’s enjoying today, the fruits of his life that you immediately see when you enter his compound, the laugh that he shares with everybody that he meets, for I saw that, if all these were because of art.

“Yes. All the success of my life is because of art. You have heard my story and everything about it is art. Art pays.”


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