Roa's paintings light up Rwanda

Onlookers gazed in awe as he put final touches on a huge and imposing art piece. This was followed by inquisitive questions on what animal it is. “Is it a goat or an antelope?” one person in the crowd asked.
Street artist Roa painting an okapi.
Street artist Roa painting an okapi.

Onlookers gazed in awe as he put final touches on a huge and imposing art piece. This was followed by inquisitive questions on what animal it is. “Is it a goat or an antelope?” one person in the crowd asked.

It was a scene to behold as curious onlookers gathered at Okapi Hotel in downtown Kigali to have a glimpse of a huge black painting on one wall of the hotel.

For two days (Tuesday and Wednesday), world renowned street artist Roa from Belgium, worked his pallet to create a larger-than-life painting of the rare, unique and endangered Okapi, an animal that is endemic to the Virunga massif.

Roa’s animal painting on the four-storey Okapi Hotel in Kigali. Photos by Sam Ngendahimana

When The New Times visited the site Wednesday afternoon, Roa was calmly putting final touches to the painting, arguably the first and biggest of its kind in Kigali.

Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, a local social enterprise that advocates social change through public art and mural projects brought Roa to Rwanda.

The artist has created hundreds of huge black and white paintings across the globe, but it was his first time painting in East Africa. His paintings exclusively feature animals and birds, in a way that attempts to examine the relationship between man and the environment.

Despite his international celebrity status, Roa has purposefully cultivated a reputation as “the anonymous one”.

“He’s the one that doesn’t talk. He paints it all,” Judith Kaine, the founder of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, informed us as the artist took a break from painting.

Similarly, you won’t see his face splashed in the media as he does not permit photos of his face taken. Any photos of him must be from a back view, with the face concealed.

Before Kigali, the artist had camped in Kinigi, Musanze for three days, creating artworks around the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) base camp office in Kinigi, Musanze.

“In partnership with RDB we were able to begin the project in Kinigi, the idea being that we wanted to do some visual research to see the animals that are so famous in Rwanda,” explained Judith Kaine of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga.

In Kinigi, he spent time talking with different stakeholders that are working on conservation and doing creative community conscious conservation work. He met with the park warden at Volcanoes National Park, and also with local conservation organisation like Conservation Heritage Turambe, and Ib’iwacu Cultural Centre.

Thereafter, he embarked on creating three paintings to represent the three national parks in the country. He painted three different animals that are indigenous to Rwanda – a mountain gorilla, to represent the Volcanoes National Park, a rhinoceros to represent Akagera National Park, while the regal sunbird represented Nyungwe Forest National Park.

“These were kind of gifts to the people. The pieces are not signed by Roa the artist, he’s anonymous, and part of our understanding was that it’s not about him, it’s about the message that he’s sharing and that it speaks for itself,” Kaine further explained.

Upon his return to Kigali, the artist offered a rare artistic talk to local artists and creatives at the Rwanda Arts Initiative in Kimihurura.

The Okapi Hotel painting was the last leg of his tour.

“This (Okapi) is one of the older hotels in Kigali, one of the first bigger mid-range hotels and is very close to town. We liked this idea of an Okapi because this animal is endemic to the Virunga massif,” explained Kaine.

“Roa’s work is about environmental conservation and the relationship between man and environment, and what the impact of human activity is on natural spaces. So this animal that may have 500 years ago lived in Kigali is now represented in this piece of art work. It’s an endangered and kind of mythical animal which is very difficult to find in nature because they blend into their surroundings and it was discovered in 1901 so it’s fairly new in being recognised as an animal.”

While the paintings in Kinigi were representative of the animals that are known and celebrated in Rwanda, a painting of the rare okapi was symbolic of the lesser known and endangered animals and the spotlight they deserve.

“Part of the idea for doing street art is to raise questions and awareness and create dialogue in the street by taking art out of the gallery and into public spaces to share it with a broader audience.

“It’s a way of democratising access to art, and creating new opportunities and platforms for people to learn through a creative process and exposure to something interesting that is happening,” Kaine concluded.