How art brought fame, fortune to Huye man

He is well known and respected in the world of arts. He has produced hundreds of art works in a career that spans decades. He is a specialist in carving figures and designs out of wood.
Some of his artworks on display inside the office of Sebukangaga (JP Bucyensenge)
Some of his artworks on display inside the office of Sebukangaga (JP Bucyensenge)

He is well known and respected in the world of arts.  He has produced hundreds of art works in a career that spans decades. He is a specialist in carving figures and designs out of wood.

Huye’s Jean Baptiste Sebukangaga, 77, is better known for his numerous artworks, which has enabled him to go places.

From former United States president Bill Clinton and his wife to Pope John Paul II, Sebukangaga has designed and produced artworks that were given to high-profile dignitaries as gifts during their tours of the country.

He has also sold his art works to government, parastatals, private institutions as well as individuals and has been hired several times to decorate buildings and offices – contracts that have earned him a fortune over the course of his career.

When I first meet Sebukangaga, he is seated in office inside his well decorated Barthos Hotel–a name he crafted by combining two French words; Beaux Arts to emphasise his love for art.

“I named the hotel as such to emphasise the place of art in my life. Indeed, I owe whatever I have to art,” Sebukangaga, who is also a wealthy businessman, says.

The walls of his office are dotted with wooden sculptures of various sizes and shapes–images that  largely portray the way of living of Rwandans. Dozens of other sculptures are arranged on wooden stalls inside the office perhaps to give a feeling that one is inside an art museum.

“My work is inspired by culture,” Sebukangaga tells me as we start our discussion.

Decades of work

At just 17, Sebukangaga enrolled at the prestigious art school Academie de Beaux Arts de Leopoldville, in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 In 1959, he graduated from the school and returned to Rwanda where he later joined Ecole d’Arts de Nyundo, an art school opened in 1963, as a teacher.

He spent the next ten years training and assisting arts students–many of whom also went on to become renown artists.

But within the same period, he was also busy creating his artworks which he sold mainly to the local market.

“I started producing artworks while I was a student and I still do it todate,” the senior citizen says as he sits behind his office wooden table, which is full of books and papers.

Since then, he has produced thousands of artworks–something that earned him money, respect and a good reputation.

From local museums to international art galleries, Sebukangaga’s work has found its place. He has also participated in several art exhibitions and won several awards–notably the Golden Medal for the promotion of culture he received in 1986.

Sebukangaga checks an old photo album of artworks and awards he has won during his career. (JP Bucyensenge)

But what’s behind that success, I ask.

“There is that passion, the skills I acquired from school and the resolve to make unique and high quality artworks,” Sebukangaga says. “It is also about choosing the right theme–a theme you understand and love.”

The ageing artist says he gets inspiration from the Rwandan culture and his work focuses on expressing the shared practices, values, habbits, beliefs and attitudes of Rwandans.

“Sculpture is like writing a book. You write on what you understand, what you love and what you are passionate about,” Sebukangaga says.

“I am passionate about our culture and I chose to focus on it.”

The sculpture master says he doesn’t know how many works he has made but estimates them to be in thousands.

And this means gaining much money and respect.

“When you do quality work, you ultimately earn big,” he says.

A piece of artwork costs between  $500 (about Rwf350, 000) and  to $1000 (Rwf700,000).

“I bet if you offered a piece of good artwork and a cow to people, many would choose the cow because of the traditional value attached to it. But I know that one good sculpture can have the value of more than five cows combined,” he  adds.

He adds: “Everyday, the value of a good artwork increases. It never goes down.”

From selling his artworks, Sebukangaga earned money that enabled him to build a business empire. He currently owns several commercial buildings, residential houses, and a hotel in Huye town–properties worth billions.

“All of these came from art. Art is the foundation of my business,” he tells me.

He advises talented individuals to tap into the sector but not to abuse it.

“There is a tendency, particularly among youthful artists, to make artworks that sell quickly but lose their value within days. They look at the quest for quality and uniqueness as less important,” he says.

He adds: “Each work needs to be unique, that is what gives it value.”

He also calls upon the government to support artists by establishing quality schools to offer them training and helping to market their products, something he says would encourage society to also value art products.

“It is regrettable to see how nice buildings are mushrooming but few of them are decorated with our own artworks,” he says.