There is a first for everything. And in the case of Rwanda, there are many firsts – or, to be more precise, firsts since 1994. And 2012 is the first year an arts museum is showing the work of international artists.
Last month saw the opening of the ‘International Art Exhibition’ at Rwesero Arts Museum in Nyanza. On display are collections by the world-renowned South African photographer Pieter Hugo and the Dutch photographer Andrea Stultiens. Mixed-media artist Collin Sekajugo also contributes a small yet meaningfully local part to the exhibit.
Hugo’s collection shows images the world-famous photographer captured ten years after the massacre that killed an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda. The series is called ‘Vestiges of genocide’, comprising photos of what the museum refers to as “pregnant places” – sites fertile with the concrete memories of genocide, such as where roadblocks were once set up or where people were murdered.
Rwandan museum guide Fiona Umutoni says she gets a chill down her spine when she walks past the photos. “And so do the visitors,” she adds.
Though not directly addressing the Rwandan genocide, Stultiens’ work deals with life in a troubled country. Entitled ‘The Kaddu Wasswa archive’, the collection is a mix of photos, videos and personal memoires of an old man Stultiens met in Uganda. Impressed by how the man documented everything in his life from age twelve, she took hundreds of pictures of his archive and visited places that he had documented.
“Inspiration for Rwandans to document the happenings in their lives” is how Sekajugo interprets Stultiens’ photos. According to Sekajugo, who is of Rwandan and Ugandan descent: “Even though this man comes from Uganda, his documents show the history of a troubled country. It’s relevant to everybody in this region.”
Photos of Sekajugo’s sculptures are displayed alongside Hugo’s, although one of his actual pieces is also at the museum. It is of an ostrich wanting to run forward but its feet are trapped to the ground.
“The show is very important for me as an artist and for Rwanda as a country,” he says. “It paves the way for the involvement of other artists in Rwanda to reach a higher level. And it’s important in terms of how the outside world looks at us.”
Museum as a platform
When Rwesero Arts Museum curator Lia Gieling first came to Rwanda, over two years ago, she was impressed by the country’s traditional art. And yet the Dutch woman didn’t find it suitable to display in a contemporary museum.
“It’s always the same paintings of markets and cows. But that’s not surprising – the [local] artists don’t get challenged, there are no arts schools or academies here to teach them skills,” says Gieling, recalling what she saw.
Back in the Netherlands, Gieling had worked for years in the arts. When she suggested some changes to improve the quality of Rwesero, she was given the chance to serve as its curator.
Today one of the museum’s aims is to help tap into Rwandans’ creative side. “With the museum, we want to create a platform as well, to teach young artists and involve them in developing the arts here,” she says.
What’s more, arts may play an important role in the healing process for people in post-genocide Rwanda. This is something Alphonse Umuliisa, the director-general of the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, also believes.
Umuliisa also points out that “another very important part of art is that it can reduce poverty. It has limitless opportunities.”
“Like a toddler”
It’s Gieling’s dream to continue with similarly globally scoped displays. She realizes it will be a challenge, as there is very little funding for the museum. Hugo’s work, for example, could only be shown because he donated the photos to the museum.
But Umuliisa doesn’t see a problem. “We are going to reach out more, and look at every fund that is available in this country,” he says.
Sekajugo is more sceptical. According to him: “Art in Rwanda is like a toddler. It’s in a very early phase right now. You have to take it by the hand to let it grow. But with the lack of funding it will be hard to have international artists here or to educate the local artists. And that makes it hard for Rwandan artists to grow.”
What the Rwesero Arts Museum displays next is uncertain, much like the future of arts in Rwanda. Here’s to hoping that toddler can grow up and flourish.
‘International Art Exhibition’ runs until 31 August 2012.