Epa Binamungu is to the Rwandan visual art scene what Cecile Kayirebwa or Kamaliza are to Rwandan folk music.
Next year, Binamungu will be marking 44 years since he first discovered a language that he speaks better than any other – art.
The 62-year-old is the founder of the popular Inganzo Art Gallery, which first captured the art fraternity’s imagination at its original home, the Kigali Business Centre (KBC) in Kimihurura.
About two years ago, the veteran artist moved to his own site in Masaka sector, Kicukiro district, tired of the exorbitant rent and limited commercial space at his former location.
From Masaka town, one ventures another 3km of untenable dirt road before the signpost to Inganzo eventually rears up from among the dense tree canopies.
If anything, this is by far the most ambitious, yet out-of-location art center in Kigali, and if this isn’t a sign of confidence on the owner’s side, then I do not know what is!
As we drive to the place in his red Toyota Hilux pickup truck on Wednesday afternoon, he jokingly remarks that with the treacherous 3km drive, he does not need to go to the gym.
We cruise past the villages and excited young kids keep gushing forth from their homes to yell “Epa! Epa!” while waving excitedly. He makes it a point to wave back with a generous smile.
This easy rapport with kids in his community also extends to the artists’ fraternity, where he is revered as a father figure and mentor.
“Epa is a short form of the Christian name, Epaphroditus,” he reveals; “It is my artiste name just like musicians have stage names. Binamungu is my family name and it means someone who is from God.”
Once inside Inganzo Art Gallery, the feeling one gets is that of being on an up country ranch without livestock. It’s all lush green – dense tree canopies all over, blooming flower gardens lining the neatly maintained lawns, and an abundance of fruit trees.
The main features on sight are; the art gallery, where hundreds of his works can be found, the workshop, which is divided in two sections –his own working space, which one accesses by walking through the public workshop where he conducts training and mentorship to young painters.
Then there is a replica of the traditional king’s house that stands majestically with its elaborate thatched roof and where Epa retreats for his private moments of calm and meditation.
I ask him why he needed such a large space, where other art galleries are fitted into simple residential houses and he retorts;
“This place is not mine alone. It’s for all artists. It’s a place to think and reflect on the future of Rwandan art.
I have homework that I have given myself, and that is to help young artists. I look at art as a marathon. You can’t run alone in a marathon. You have to do it with many people, then you will have purpose to go with them and arrive at a destination. This is why I’m close to all artistes both young and old. I work with them because they inspire me, and my duty is to share with them my own experience. My dream was to have space where I can invite colleagues, a place for thinking and doing what we need to do for society.”
Started in the DRC
Epa was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from where he discovered his knack for drawing at the tender age of eight.
“The first time I discovered I was an artist was when my father tried to teach me to write.
“For instance if he told me to write inka (cow) I always found it very difficult to join all those letters to become one thing. For me it was easier to draw it. And everyone could understand that it is a cow even if you spoke Kinyarwanda, English or French,” he says.
At school, teachers begun to engage the young man artistically. They would ask him to draw charts on the chalkboard to illustrate their lessons. Epa would then move from class to class drawing charts. His teachers kept telling him that one day he would become a great artist.
But there were initial challenges along the journey.
“I had a big problem with my parents who did not want me to pursue art. They wanted me to be a doctor or someone who is very important in society but that was not my purpose. My goal was to be someone who can represent something by drawing. So I had a lot of fights with my parents. Every time they tried to convince me not to do art and for me it was stressful.”
Eventually he had to strike a delicate compromise.
“Because I had respect for my parents, I started doing my art in hiding. I had to persist because that was my dream. Eventually they started relaxing and giving me my freedom, but the first thing they told me was that please don’t miss school. Go through your studies, get your diploma and then you can be who you want to be after wards,” he counsels.
He studied Biology and Chemistry in college, but only to please his unrelenting parents.
“It was just for academic purposes and for my parents to be happy. As for me, my goal was to have freedom and to be free vis a vis my parents and doing what I love.”
When he started drawing portraits of people, the money started trickling in.
“I’d see someone, draw their portrait, get paid and use that money to pay my tuition. Then I learnt that holding an exhibition was very good for developing my career,” he says.
1973, turning point
Epa held his first-ever exhibition in the DRC, thanks to a Belgian Catholic White Father named Andre Lacoste, who had earlier spotted his incredible talent.
And this was no ordinary art exhibition by any standards, more so for an artist that was still finding their footing.
“For this exhibition I read the first two books of the bible, Genesis and Exodus, and I retold the story using images only. It was very fantastic,” he reveals.
Father Lacoste covered Epa’s expenses by giving him some money and materials like canvass and paints.
“All the paintings I exhibited were bought by this Father and he also paid my tuition for two years,” he reveals with the tone of a man forever indebted to the Father’s kind gesture. “This man trained and educated me to be an artist, he taught me what is art.”
Father Lacoste further introduced Epa to the world of antique art.
Epa believes that art “is something that joins you to society. Art is an expression of the emotion –how are you feeling vis a vis the society; how are you feeling when the society needs something from you?
“Art is what brings me near to the next person. It is the best platform from which I talk to people. I don’t talk to people using words like we are doing now. I talk to people through my artistic expression. Life questions me, and my answer is the art that I create.
“Art is what I do whenever I need to rest and relax. It’s what I do when I need my freedom. Art is priceless to me because it’s life itself. You can’t value life in monetary terms,” he says.
365 days exhibition
Epa is organising an official opening for the centre slated for mid-December, at which he will display some of the antics he has been collecting over the last 35 years.
“I have many pieces that people will be seeing for the first time because I have been hiding them.”
About the 365 days exhibition, he asks; “When you see the number 365 what comes to your mind?”
“A year,” I reply, and he explains; “I’ve invited all visual artists for this day and each of them will make a small painting each, and we will have a total of 365 paintings. Each painting will represent a date on the calendar. The artists will also bring their other art works to exhibit and to sell.”
I ask how many art pieces he has made to date, and his response is cryptic;
“Take 34 years and multiply that with 3 to 4 exhibitions every year, in which I have on average 50 pieces then you will get a rough idea.”