Right at the heart of Kiyovu, Umurunga Arts Center has been running for over a month now. Inside the premises one will find the multi-talented multi- purpose 11 young men that are the artistic brains behind the center.
Walking into their shop, you are immediately drawn to various paintings and drawings that color their walls. From traditional to modern art works, every piece is a conversation of its own. They paint, sculpt, illustrate and also engage in ceramics, music and poetry.
With the oldest of them being 23, the young men collectively and personally endeavour to express their inner creativity and depict the intricacies and beauty of life through their art. They come from humble backgrounds but carry the mantra of turning their passion into profitable ventures through what they say is ‘Creative entrepreneurship.’
Daddy Samuel Ishimwe, a painter and leader of the group, told Sunday Times that they started Umurunga back in 2014 when they were just students who wanted to a platform to express themselves and showcase their work.
“All 11 of us had the opportunity to study at Nyundo Arts School which in more ways than one helped us develop a personality as artists and helped us find and define our artistic strengths. We wanted to join efforts and start a platform to benefit not only ourselves but other upcoming artists as well , that is how Umurunga Arts Center was formed,” he said.
“We each contributed the best we could and started with a startup capital of Rwf50,000. For any art piece sold, a percentage goes to the group while the rest goes to the artist. We are truly passionate about what we do individually and collectively and this is what we have chosen to invest our time, effort and life,” he added.
Their artistic star has gradually been rising since they meet Dr. Mona Bahtit, a Canadian who currently not only helps them sell their art but also mentors them on various subjects. She says that for the young artists to fully exploit the potential of their unique art they need stability and consistency.
“I love art and I have travelled all over the world and met many painters and other artists. It is both a pleasure and an opportunity to share as much insight as I can with these young talents. For them to be able to create content, sell ideas and innovate, they need to be rich in experience and interaction with other people in the field,” she said.
Experiences and Challenges
Artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind and gaining knowledge of the history of art is often fundamental to artists.
Umurunga artists say they are privileged to have obtained that kind of experience not only from school but other artists and mentors as well.
Olivier Mbabazi, a sculptor, poet, painter and musician in the group says they are inspired by Rwandan history as well as the modern and diverse global history.
“We are inspired by nature all around us, books, music or simply the things we see in daily life. I would say that artists all over the world are more attuned to emotions and allow themselves to feel deeply and honestly. This is why perhaps what we do resonates with many people.” he said.
Benjamin Bwenge, a sculptor, agrees noting that if indeed people are made from God’s image then they are meant to create just like he did.
The Umurunga artists insist that art will put bread on their table and pay their bills and that gradually, their dreams are being realized.
“We can say that at the moment our clientele is comprised of both locals and tourists. So far the feedback we have received has been very positive and people who visit us often show surprise and pleasure at the work we are doing. The encouragement we receive daily motivates all of us to work twice as hard,” Mbabazi said.
Their artistic journey however is not without hurdles. Ishimwe says their struggle lies with obtaining affordable good quality raw materials like canvases, brushes and other tools which they have to import from neighboring countries.
Quarto Quinto, another artist in the group describes the challenges faced when they are cheated by intermediaries who approach them under the pretext of representing other clients.
“There are instances where the intermediaries give us less of a quarter of what our art is worth and only at the time of payment does one realise they have been cheated.
This mostly affects startup artists and in extreme cases they even erase your signature from a piece of art,” he said adding that there is a need for laws that define trade in art to be clearly defined and implemented to protect artists.
“Another challenge that we face is trying to shift the mindset of our clients. Most will bring downloaded designs to us so that we can copy them for them. This is wrong because we have great ideas too but they are not given a chance to grow and be implemented because people don’t create space for innovation. They don’t give us a chance to create a whole new piece and dimension of art that could be impressive if given a chance,” he said.
Patient, a painter in the group says they want to play a huge role in making Kigali the art capital of Africa.
“We want to create a space where all artists around the country can come and express themselves and also have a platform to sell their art.
We want to overcome the already mentioned challenges and devise a formula on how to do so for others that may come after us.” he said.
Ishimwe concurred adding that they want to preserve Rwandan culture and life style as it was, is and imagine how it will be as it evolves over the years.
“I was impressed by the convention center because as an architectural piece of art it unites both the traditional construction with an impressive twist of modernity. In the same way our art represents culture as an ever evolving phenomenon that it is. Our vision is to ensure that our art is timeless.” he said.
It has been said that if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough. Umurunga artists embody that ambitious fiber as when asked what they wanted to achieve individually statements like such were heard:
“I want my paintings to find home in world class museums of the world.”
“I want my art to take me places, I want to see people, cultures and customs. I want to paint the world.”
“I want my art to pay my bills. And I want them to be very large bills.”
“I want my painting to sit next to the Mona Lisa.”
“I want my art and passion to raise the Rwandan flag worldwide.”