Unconventional CEO envisions successful careers for aspiring artists

Peter Lee examines a sculpture in the gallery. Ann Singer

Peter Lee is not your ordinary CEO, and no, it’s not just because there’s a little kitten named Ishimwe Primus running around his offices. For starters, he runs a social enterprise for emerging artists in Kigali.

Envision Media Arts Collective is just that – a collective – which Peter describes as a hub for creative minds to work amongst each other, to be inspired by one another, and to share space, resources, and knowledge to the mutual benefit of the group and to the Rwandan art scene at large.

Envision is an art gallery, digital production studio, media lab, co-working space, and artist’s community. Business as usual at Envision could look like a photo shoot for Ms. Rwanda one day, a live sculpture practice another, and a multimedia art exhibition the next. You’ve probably even seen some of the Envision artists filming around Kigali, from local weddings to events at the Convention Centre.

“Business as usual at Envision could look like a photo shoot for Ms. Rwanda one day, a live sculpture practice another, and a multimedia art exhibition the next.”

Peter first moved here in 2016 for a photo/video fellowship at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in the Eastern Province, where he taught photography and videography to over 100 teenagers and founded the organization’s media club.

He was struck by the level of talent, and also by the level of unemployment after graduation. Students were struggling to find work, and at the end of his second year Peter was inspired to found a company that could employ alumni.

“I wanted to continue to develop the talent from ASYV but expand it to Kigali, to have more impact and to create accessible opportunities for graduates,” he explained.

So Peter returned to the United States, and as he famously says in one breath: “I sold my car and bought $10,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment and a one-way ticket back to Kigali.”

This was in March 2018. By early April, he had secured the Envision gallery space in Remera. By April 18th Envision Media Arts Collective was a registered company.

Rachel Sherman sat down with Peter Lee to learn more about the challenges he’s faced in his first year of running a startup, the gender imbalance in the art scene in Rwanda, and the driving factors behind creating a social enterprise instead of a for-profit company.

Did you always see Envision becoming a production studio and a gallery community space?

Originally it was a production studio/media company, but then I realised that there was a need for all sorts of creatives to have this opportunity and access to this space, so we expanded to the creative arts, including fine arts and fashion design. We wanted to service a larger market and provide a valuable space for artists in different industries.

“It’s really all for the artists, and it has evolved into something bigger than I initially intended.”

What I like about Envision is that there was a mission but there was no set idea. I didn’t plan to have an art gallery or host a fashion designer, but it’s all come together in its own way. It’s really all for the artists, and it has evolved into something bigger than I initially intended.

Basengo Idi, Envision fine artist, paints on the balcony.

You could have just created the company without the workspace, why do you feel it is important to not only give the opportunity but also a work environment?

Recent graduates and young professionals need opportunity and access. Having access to a physical space where people are working together creates a culture of collaboration, creativity, and community. Creative professionals feed off of each other and learn from one another.

Having a workspace creates an atmosphere of openness where they can be surrounded by other artists, who aren’t necessarily in the same field, and feel inspired by the work that everyone is doing.

And because certain quality equipment and studio space is somewhat limited in Rwanda, we wanted to provide these resources for aspiring artists.

Iradukunda Remy creates a sculpture.

Currently, you have 11 male artists and 1 female, why is there such a big gap in gender balance?

Professional female artists are hard to come by in Rwanda. Beyond craft making and jewellery, when it comes to fine arts they are difficult to find. There seems to be a drop off from high school to the professional world.

Though many girls are talented artists in high school I don’t see many pursue art after graduation. This could be a confidence gap or largely due to the societal expectations placed on women.

Are you actively seeking female artists?

We do want to find ways to encourage and support the female artist community in Rwanda. Our aim is to have more female artists working with us and to inspire the ones who are interested in this field and provide extra opportunities for them as well.

There is a big gender imbalance in this field and we want to do what we can to help promote female artists. We started a program to sponsor education for promising female filmmakers. We give scholarships to help them attend university and continue their studies.

You started Envision with three artists who graduated from ASYV, how did you expand to the other artists who are not connected to ASYV?

All the other artists have joined organically through different networks of our existing artists.

The photo community in Kigali tends to know each other. People who have visited here expressed interest in being part of the collective so we discussed how we could benefit from them, and how they could benefit from us. One artist I found at an art show doing a live painting.

You created Envision to address the opportunity gap in Rwanda for young artists and media professionals. What sort of gaps do you see in the market here?

Opportunity is the biggest idea driving Envision. It’s behind the entire business. We believe that given the right opportunities anyone who is dedicated and motivated can have a successful career in the arts.

Despite backgrounds and socio-economic limitations?

Exactly. A lot of our artists come from challenging backgrounds. Many are orphans, some are genocide survivors. They now use their skills to build successful careers for themselves.

Why did you want to create a social enterprise instead of a for-profit company?

The purpose was always to offer opportunities that underserved youth could access. If the purpose was to make money I would have done something completely different. It’s more important that the artists are able to support themselves. The purpose of Envision is to create social impact.

“If the purpose was to make money I would have done something completely different. The purpose of Envision is to create social impact.”