At 64 years of age, Epa Binamungu has rightfully earned the title of “first elder of Rwandan art”.
In 2016, Binamungu marked 45 years of his eventful journey as a visual artist with a group exhibition that brought together 23 local visual artists at his Inganzo Art Gallery in Masaka sector, Kicukiro District in the City of Kigali.
The gallery was originally located at the Kigali Business Centre (KBC) complex in Kimihurura, before the artist sought out a bigger out-of-town location. Today, Inganzo is the biggest private art space in Kigali, perhaps a testament to the owner’s good fortunes.
Binamungu first discovered his knack for illustration at the tender age of eight in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was born.
His artistic breakthrough came in 1973, when the artist held his first art exhibition in the DRC, thanks to a kind Belgian Catholic White Father, Andre Lacoste, who had earlier spotted his talent.
“Fantastic” is how the artist described his maiden exhibition, for which he had to read the first two books of the Bible, and retell the stories using images.
Not an easy road
If Binamungu’s story sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is an exception to the rule.
Today, the growing legion of local visual artists can only dream of a similar experience in their endeavour for artistic excellence.
Yet for most, the motivation to paint remains the need to get out of the shackles of poverty and even street life in some cases. From the word go, the challenges are innumerable.
Ask any local visual artist how they learnt their craft, and most probably the answer will be “I am a self-taught artist” – a pointer to the limited formal opportunities available for teaching art.
Many budding artists have to seek apprenticeship opportunities from art galleries and friends who are already established in the trade, but there is only so many artists that the galleries can absorb.
Even for the few that manage to attain formal art schooling, challenges still abound.
It is what Jean Baptiste Rukundo found out soon after graduating from the Nyundo School of Art and Music in 2010.
To gain artistic footing, Rukundo sought unpaid apprenticeship with different artists and art studios around Kigali. Even when given the chance, the budding artist still struggled to find the money to buy materials like paints and canvas due to financial constraints.
Matters were not helped by the fact that most of the requisite materials are not available locally, and therefore have to be sourced from far and wide.
In 2011, Fabien Akimana, a fellow artist introduced Rukundo to Ivuka Art Centre, where resident artists were kind enough to share their materials and work tools with him.
“We have materials here but not in plenty. When everyone is buying from one spot, you go to galleries and the works all have the same feel and look,” remarks another visual artist, Timothy Wandulu of Concept Arts in Kacyiru.
This, he says, has forced many to cross borders in search of quality paints, canvas and other materials at good rates.
“Some go as far as Kenya and Tanzania and beyond whenever they get a chance to fly out or if someone is coming to Kigali, they request if they can carry a paint tin or two for them.”
The battle for visibility
The question of how to market and sell one’s name as a bona fide artist is one that haunts most budding painters. For this reason, local practitioners have evolved a collaborative working approach, where they collaborate on projects, art spaces, and in staging exhibitions.
Artists usually have to think outside the box before their name can leave an impression. For Timothy Wandulu, it would be anything from branding cows, to giving neighbourhood houses a paint makeover.
Bruce Canda Niyonkuru, who cut his artistic teeth from Ivuka Art Centre in Kacyiru, has a popular painting titled “Young Talented Artists’ Dilemma”, in which he attempts to capture the daily struggles and pains of budding local artists.
The piece is dotted with paintings of the faces of different local artists, in a way of paying homage to their efforts in elevating the local visual art spectrum.
Unlike local musicians, who do not usually attend other musicians’ shows except when given VIP treatment, local visual artists always look out for each other, especially when organising exhibitions.
Save for a few big names from established galleries, who usually shun events organised by smaller artists, one is sure to bump into virtually all artists once one of them is exhibiting.
The bulk of art pieces are sold at art galleries and city craft shops, with art displays at high-end hospitality spots like hotels and restaurants. But increasingly, with more artists opting to work from their home-based studios, the focus in sales and marketing is gradually shifting to the world wide web, where individual artists drop off their contacts, samples of their works, and prices.
That the prices of art pieces on sale at art galleries and other venues are quoted in dollars says a lot about the nature of clientele for local art; westerners.
It’s not easy to imagine a native forking out as much as USD 2,000 for a piece of artwork on canvass, which is what some of the pieces in the large galleries go for.
The presumed reasons for this are two; that Rwandans (or Africans) do not appreciate art well enough, or that this art is too expensive for the average native.
According to Wandulu, part of the problem is with the artists themselves.
“I think it should be a collaborative venture. We’ve got to do art for our communities, not only that tourist art that is everywhere in the spaces that are meant to be game changers.
“We need communal interactive works of art and those are not the ones you find on gallery walls selling for thousands of dollars. It all scares away the lay man in the mudugudu.
“Authorities don’t often get to reach out to all the creatives. Shared knowledge and information is limited. Documenting of our art history is really, really minimal or non-existent,” he says.
Wandulu debunks the popular notion that Rwandans in particular and Africans in general ‘do not buy/appreciate art’.
“Rwandans buy art. It’s just that the way we interest them in our art is the one that pushes them away from buying more of it. The way some artists do the art to a certain extent does not carry that innate Rwandan touch, be it from the execution, to the choice of theme, topic or story. We’ve got to get back to the communities and be diverse with what we put out,” he says.
Wandulu concludes that the most critical part of his hustle as an artist has been “coming to grips with how stuff is here, and not being able to go and find artistic environments to settle and be able to work extensively”.
“Staying put here with how slow things are and accepting to be a part of the growth, especially when I am really hungry for creating, and then seeing other artists in other states push boundaries and make impressive shows that I am not, I feel redundant and stifled in my growth as an artist.”
How can art be made more appealing to Rwandans?
The first thing is for artists to get more support from the Government, for example, helping them organise exhibitions, and increasing art schools. There is also need for construction of display rooms. Sensitise people on art because this way they will come to love it; artists should also ensure to create meaningful pieces to Rwandans.
Fabrice Girihirwe, Painter
Artists should try to design pieces with concepts that people can relate to, at times, it’s the complex designs that push people away. Painters and other artists in general need to understand that this is very important.
Deborah Nanyonga, Administrator
More festivals and exhibitions are needed for us to market art. Also, more support from the Government is vital if this industry is to continue growing; support in form of finances or capacity building will do.
Gulain Iradukunda, Artist
This is a very complicated issue and it needs to be addressed. I think the issue is with the public that doesn’t fully understand the value of art; they think it’s a waste of money for one to buy an art piece. But this shouldn’t be the case, people need to embrace diversity and understand the value art holds.
Paola Ingabire, Artist