Bryce Niyonkuru, 23, started developing his artistic skills in primary school. He started off by drawing animals, movie stars, and comic book heroes. On the side, she used wires to make little cars to play with.
Unlike most Rwandan contemporary artists who are self-taught, Niyonkuru was able to attend Nyundo art school. Starting without any financial means, the visual artist worked hard to make his way up.
In 2011, he became a member of Ivuka Arts, the country’s first community arts centre. His biggest wish then was to fully practice art and develop his skills surrounded by the right people in an adequate environment.
“Contemporary art is still in its trial mode in Rwanda. It is still in the process of finding itself even though little by little, it is making progress,” says Niyonkuru.
In fact, in the artist’s view, the Rwandan contemporary art scene was only formed after the genocide with the return of refugees coming from different corners of the world, with new cultural perspectives.
“I draw my inspiration from every day African life, but also from my day to day struggles, the beauty of the world and our nation,” he says. Personal exchanges with fellow artists and internet discussions also help him find inspiration.
Through his art, Niyonkuru would like to remind people about a forgotten cultural heritage, a treasure now lost.
Rwandan culture therefore plays a crucial part in his art. When producing his artwork, the big questions which guide him are as follows: “Does my production reflect authentic Rwandan culture? Does it bring forward the essence of a reputable Rwandan or African person?”
“I believe in the future”, says Niyonkuru, “the time will come when artists will be able to practice their art, because it is their passion but also to make a living”.
For that to happen, Niyonkuru believes the youth should spend more time focusing on the beauty of art rather than losing time on their phones or in front of their television screens.
Challenges remain. Rwandan society still has not come to terms with contemporary arts. Most, even artists’ relatives, underestimate it, thinking that art practitioners are only non-conformists.
Also, local art buyers are not many as most do not understand why they should be paying high prices. Niyonkuru finds his clients mainly on the international market. He believes that, at the moment, people abroad understand the value of art better.
He however says that a positive change in Rwandan society is happening. Rwandans are slowly learning to appreciate art, attending exhibitions and sometimes asking about the meaning of a painting. Sales are also increasing and more and more contemporary art galleries are opening.
To promote this positive change in society, Niyonkuru has started his own project, Imizi Girls Art, aiming to develop young girls’ creative talents. Rwanda’s art scene does not yet count many girls; a good reason for him to focus on them.
By providing these girls with the necessary material and knowledge, Niyonkuru wishes that one day they will be able to make their own trajectory in the arts.
“The girls, aged 18 to 20, are at a time in life when they could easily start misbehaving to make some money or opt to travel abroad for more opportunities for example. They don’t usually find the time to develop their talents. With Imizi Girls Art, that’s what we want to change”.
At the moment, there are 10 girls working with design, wood, painting and more. Every year, 10 new girls receive training.
Niyonkuru dreams that in 5 to 10 years, more galleries, art schools and probably even universities for art will open and flourish.