Visual artist Willy Karekezi is just back from his longest professional stint abroad. And it was work, work and more work for the 24- year-old.
He left for Austria at the beginning of December last year, and returned to Rwanda on March 1.
“I was there for 90 days. In 90 days, I learnt 900 things,” he explained when we met for the interview on March 4.
In Kigali, Karekezi is affiliated to the Uburanga Arts Centre in Kimihurura. It’s from here that an opportunity to showcase his works in Europe materialised.
“I got some clients from Austria and they liked my work and decided to help me with an exhibition back in Europe. They came as clients but we became friends and family. We travelled a lot many times and shared houses and they were so proud to see me in their country,” he explains.
“I was so interested and decided to find other things to do on the side because it’s no use being hosted for three months and you go for just one exhibition. I tried to find some other connections on the side to see if I could get some other exhibitions.”
The painter also made brief touristic excursions to neighbouring Germany and the Czech Republic.
In Austria he held a total of three exhibitions and capped them all with a special presentation on Rwanda.
“I decided to do a presentation about Rwanda because the people there didn’t know Rwanda. They knew Rwanda from 20 years ago but the country has changed a lot. Even people who are in Europe but grew up in Rwanda don’t know Rwanda. I met many who saw some of my pictures and said ‘I’m not so sure this is Rwanda.’ So I wanted to show what Rwanda is.”
The presentation went beyond his usual line of work-visual art; it involved showing Rwandan videos, photographs and paintings, playing Rwandan music, even live cooking of Rwandan food, which he served to exhibition-goers.
“I was in Europe but in Rwanda. I didn’t want to be European. I wanted to show them I’m African, my life and my culture. Most people are failing because they’re trying to imitate the cultures of other people. You can be like me but you will never be me. When you copy, you are pushing the person you’re copying. It’s always hard to get your own way to live but there’s always a good result at the end.”
Karekezi staged his first exhibition a few days after landing in Austria and reckons that it “wasn’t so good, because people didn’t know me well and also, it was in the week I arrived so I hadn’t envisioned it.”
The other major hurdle was language barrier, being that German is the official language in Austria.
“I didn’t know the language (German) and the people there want to know if you’re really interested in their culture and whether you want to know them also. Most Africans there want money, so they wanted to see if I was that kind of guy,” he says.
He had to learn the little German he now speaks really quick, and the results were visible in successive exhibitions, which were more warmly received.
But there were other social challenges he had to deal with, away from the exhibitions; like the general insistence on detail.
“People there like to cross-check everything because they don’t trust people. If you say you’ve been to a certain country or done something they will ask, ‘is it online’? They always want to know. Someone will never let you into their house when they know nothing about you. People take time to know about people and things by making background checks,” he says.
But three months can be such a long time for one to spend across the ocean, thousands of miles from home. So much so that while in Austria, friends and close associates back home kept asking whether he had left Rwanda for good. In fact, others wanted him to stay there, make money and live the ‘dream’.
But Karekezi had other ideas.
To him, Africa is home, and he would like to be a part of the change he wants to see in his home country and on the continent.
“Paradise is home, but it depends on how you construct home. I want to see the young generation grow up with a big love of where they come from because I know many friends who left the country and that’s a shame because they were so intelligent and could make a difference back home. The moment they decide to serve other countries, that’s the failure of our country. We will never be able to construct our selves when we don’t want to build our own place,” he says.
He also has a bone to pick with fellow visual artists in Rwanda, most of whom, he says, are selling “poverty”.
“They make a piece and put it out there with a price. When clients ask; does this piece have a story, they just create a story. So the story keeps changing with every new client that asks because you want to sell. Most artists sell their paintings depending on how they see the client. So someone likes the painting, goes home and tells a cousin about it. When this new person goes to the gallery and asks about the painting, the artist gives a different story.
“Rwandan artists and Rwandan people in general should embrace research because there are many things hidden and what you are shown may not be the reality. To find reality you have to dig deep.
“We don’t read books, even though we have libraries. I was surprised to find in Europe every coffee shop has a library, so much as I always read in Rwanda, there I read even more.”
On Thursday, Karekezi travelled again, this time to Kampala, Uganda, where he will be staging his next exhibition titled Me, Myself and Art. He will exhibit jointly with fellow visual artist Tabaro Poupoute, with whom he collaborated on The Empty World, an exhibition the two staged in Kigali in February last year.
His next mission is to keep healing people of Rwanda because Rwandan artists are in a big fight to make Rwandan people understand what we’re doing.
“People here think that what we do is for foreigners, and personally I’m so proud when a fellow Rwandan buys a painting from me. I will sell it so cheaply because I’m so proud someone from my home has something from me,” he says.