Serge Niyonsaba’s long walk to painting

As far as the hustles of chasing a career dream go, 26 year-old painter Serge Niyonsaba has had a fair share of his own.
Niyonsaba developing a sketch at his place of work. (Moses Opobo)
Niyonsaba developing a sketch at his place of work. (Moses Opobo)

As far as the hustles of chasing a career dream go, 26 year-old painter Serge Niyonsaba has had a fair share of his own.

By the age of fifteen, as a young boy growing up in Rubavu, Western Province, he was already receiving apprenticeship from a friend, who he regularly frequented with sketches and paintings for guidance and approval.

In 2007, with the skills acquired from his friend, Niyonsaba enrolled at the Nyundo Art School, in Rubavu, from where he learnt to draw professionally.

“For me it was another chance to start my artistic career afresh. Before, I did not know how to make the best art works with artistic proportion although I had the talent in me.”

After three years of srt school, he moved to Kigali to attend training in multi-media at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST).

Facing the world

After the training, he stayed with a brother in Kigali, in a bid to find employment.

He tried his hand at ordinary design jobs for posters and billboards, but the money in design was not good. 

“I lived with my brother for a year and half, then he asked me to try to find something to do instead of staying at home. I moved around to get a job, but it wasn’t easy to find a job in Kigali. So I told him I had a talent of painting and it’s what I wanted to do,” Niyonsaba said.

In order to demonstrate his ability and win his brother’s confidence, Niyonsaba took his picture and made a beautiful portrait out of it. He also made one for his pastor at the Nyamirambo Assemblies of God Church, free of charge.

“One of the pastor was to make people in the church know that I was an artist, and after seeing it, he was very happy.”  Soon, the word would start to go around about his artistic talents.

Then a chance meeting with an American woman around Lemigo Hotel landed him his first major lease: “She saw my abstract painting and was impressed, and promised to get me some clients, and she did.”

With the added incentive of the money coming in for his paintings, the young man decided to team up with an artist friend, Onesime Sezerano, and find a common base for their activities. He left his brother’s house and paired up with his friend in Nyamirambo, where the pair live and work to this day.  

It is not an art gallery in the conventional sense of the word, rather the humble place of abode for young, up-and-coming painters. There is no display space, save for the few paintings hanging from the walls of the tiny living room.

Here, some of the painter’s finest pieces on canvas hang majestically and prominently from the walls.

One is an oil painting titled Home-coming, and it depicts the US president Barack Obama hugging his wife Michelle.

“When you go away for long, people at home get nostalgic. I was portraying the nostalgia of a woman for her husband,” he explains the piece, which he made for an online Art competition under the theme, Tears of Happiness, in 2013.

“I was inspired by a home-coming, and usually at a home-coming, women shed tears of joy and nostalgia.”

His other remarkable piece is a portrait of the First Lady, Jeanette Kagame. He made the painting ahead of an expected courtesy visit by the First Lady to the Kigali Library Services in December last year. “I was doing some live painting at the RaN Coffee Shop at the library, so my boss asked me to make a portrait as a gift to the First Lady, but unfortunately her visit was cancelled.”

He had hoped that the piece would perhaps catch her attention and open more doors for him, but that was not to be. Today, it is obvious that he keeps it as his most prized artistic possession, still hoping that one day it will catch the attention of the right pair of eyes.

But getting to this place is almost impossible, as it’s totally off the grid, so I ask the artistes how they get business, and Niyonsaba immediately cites that as a major hurdle, besides occasional shortages of materials like paint.  

Most of the clients that brave the trek down to this place come to have portraits painted out of their pictures, and usually, these come from within the artiste’s circle of friends and associates.

However, he has found other ways of dealing with this problem, as he awaits such a time when he would be in position to hire space for a professional art gallery.  

In the meantime, his wares are on display at the Rwanda Art and Décor Gallery, situated at the Kigali Business Center. He claims 70% commission off each piece sold.

Occasionally, he lands on the odd deal from an NGO in need of illustrations and cartoons for publication. He also gets a few orders from social media platforms like Facebook, where he posts regular updates of his works, and through word-of-mouth.

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