How a local NGO uses arts to perform Umuganda

Do you want to paint? Come over this side; Is that one old enough to paint? Is there anyone too young to paint? What colors do you want to work with? Do you need a brush or will you use your fingers?
School pupils and the artists pose for a photo in front of one of the painted walls. (Moses Opobo)
School pupils and the artists pose for a photo in front of one of the painted walls. (Moses Opobo)

Do you want to paint? Come over this side; Is that one old enough to paint? Is there anyone too young to paint? What colors do you want to work with? Do you need a brush or will you use your fingers?

Strange questions coming out of one Umuganda (monthly community work) session, right? That has to be because this was a slightly different variation to the concept as we have come to know it.

For this month’s Umuganda, I decided to tag along a loose collective of visual artists under the Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga umbrella.

Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga (to create, to see, to learn) is a local public and community arts initiative that seeks to demystify the visual arts by taking the experience away from the confines of conventional art galleries and studios and out to the street and public spaces.

On the last Saturday of every month, the Kurema team hosts a roving community activity dubbed Arts Umuganda, in line with the national Umuganda activities.

Brush, pallet, paint...

Whereas farm implements like hoes and machetes dominate the conventional Umuganda toolkit, the arts umuganda calls for a paint brush, lots of paint, and of course open spaces like walls on which to paint.

This is what the Kureba team carried to Ecole Cyapepe in Iterambere village, Akabahizi cell, Gitega sector in Nyarugenge district this month.

With this they would be able to shoot two birds with one stone; on the one hand, add color and life to the rather dilapidated-looking kindergarten and its wooden perimeter fencing with educative messages, and on the other hand, to introduce the eager pre-school learners to the pallet.

Like with previous projects, the visual artists first worked exclusively on the project for about three days preceding the event.

On D-day, they just put finishing touches to what was pretty much a done job before embarking on the other important aspect of the activity – involving the local community and giving them a chance to paint as well.

The artists are simply asked at random who wanted to paint, and duly equipped interested parties with pallets, brushes and paint. The paint is courtesy of Sadolin paints, which recently entered into a partnership with Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga.

As soon as the first child-painter put his brush to wood, the trend caught on like a wild fire, as one after the other now immersed themselves in the process of creating using paint and pallet.

Many of the younger children shunned the paint brushes and simply resorted to dipping their fingers directly in the paint and then poking colorful dots on walls, on the wooden fence structure and lining the verandah.

The activity was further attended by a small group of tourists who wanted to do something artsy out in the community before their flights back.

Their presence seemed to fire up the mood even further, especially among the younger ones.

Deo Kalinda, the founder and director of the school, caused much amusement when he burst into the school compound all excited and hyped up.

He had been told by neighbors that a group of wazungus and children had embarked on giving his school a makeover, and that he would struggle to recognize the new, colorful structure.

“My cell administrator just came here and informed me that there are some people who want to do this at my school and he recommended Ecole Cyapepe because it’s one of the best schools in this area. He told me I would have to get in contact with the artists through his office,” Kalinda explained.

Deo Kalinda, the school director, joins his charges to paint. (Moses Opobo)

“After three days, I met Judith Kaine. People are now telling me that Ecole Cyapepe has changed, and that’s good, because it’s a form of publicity. It will help me to even convince parents to participate if I want to introduce something else. It is small things like this that capture people’s attention. Since this thing came up even the value of the environment has improved,” he concluded.

Most of the visual artistes on site hailed from the Ivuka Arts collective in Kacyiru, from where the idea for Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga was born.

“Judith just came with some ideas and asked if we could collaborate on them,” explained Shadrack Kayiranga, one of the artists who have been with the project from day one.

“I do art as a fun activity, just like a good footballer enjoys playing football. That’s why I do it many times without thinking of money. Sometimes I even offer private painting lessons and still don’t charge. Being in the gallery and selling paintings is good for the artist because you have to make money to keep making art,” further explained.  

“The purpose is to bring the experience of visual art out to the public. It’s another way of showcasing the visual artists in Rwanda and what they do, so it’s a form of marketing,” remarked another artist, Jean Baptiste Mpungirehe.

“There are also important messages we communicate to the community. Instead of talking, we paint the message in a way that anybody can easily interpret.”

For Bonfils Ngabonziza, it was the prospect of widening his artistic horizons that drove him to the project.

“I learnt mural making after getting inspiration from Kurema. I like murals because I get to work with large spaces so I get to express my feelings and thoughts better.”

Transforming public spaces

Mention public/street art, and the first image that gathers on many a person’s mind is that of messy and illegal graffiti on walls. Thankfully, Rwanda does not have to grapple with this.

“Graffiti is not such a big thing in Rwanda at present and by graffiti I mean illegal street writings. Street art in terms of the murals that we create, if it’s on a public wall we work with city authorities to make sure we have the right permission and if it’s a privately owned wall we make sure to work with the owners so that we come up with what is desired,” explained Judith Kaine.

Most of their work comes in the form of murals, designed and located for the general public. It’s there to beautify a space, or even identify it (let you know where you are, just by the words, images, colors or style). It may have some broader social commentary, or just be there to bring some beautiful chaos to a particular place.

“It teaches self-awareness, sensitivity, expression, discipline and the ability to create something from nothing. Using your imagination to make something beautiful and then seeing how this can affect someone else is a really powerful realization,” remarked Kaine.

Getting an early exposure to the paint brush. (Moses Opobo)

“Some of the murals focus on HIV-related stigma, like a large mural at the Rwanda Biomedical Center in Remera that was painted in 2013 in collaboration with a visiting artist from South Africa named Freddie Sam together with our team created this work with feedback and input from the Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Biomedical Center to create something that was of shared value – something that represented both what the artists envision as a message, as well a message that supports the work that the government is doing in the fight against HIV/Aids,” Kaine added. 

At the Kimisagara One Stop Youth Center, a mural was created last year with the involvement of young community members. It tells a message about staying happy, which is the Government of Rwanda and the Ministry of Youth and ICT’s model of how young people should live. It’s about being healthy, active, patriotic, productive, innovative, and having a sense of society.

The mural depicts both that theme as well as a specific message that says Ejo Heza (there’s a bright future for you tomorrow).

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