The Art of Healing: How Creativity is Helping Revitalize Rwanda

By Sara Lewis

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s almost impossible to miss the seven-foot gorilla statue standing proudly in the foyer of the Inema Arts Center. Covered in what appears to be decrepit computer parts and spray painted with every vibrant color imaginable, the statue captivates visitors, drawn to this enormous object as soon as they walk into the gallery’s door. They slowly walk around it, admiring it every conceivable angle, mesmerized by the cacophony of colors and erratic texture. 

This statue has become much more than an impressive sculpture. Now an emblem of Rwandan art, it embodies the increasing power of creativity in this tiny country. The burgeoning art scene not only fuels the tourism industry here, but has also become a potent tool for education and community building. Art boosts civic pride and systematically reshapes the horrific narrative of genocide that continues to haunt the nation. 

 

In Rwanda, art has become “part of healing,” says Emmanuel Nkuranga, who created the gorilla sculpture and also helped found the Inema Arts Center with his brother. 

 

In a country where the native language has no words for green, purple, or blue, art has blossomed into a flourishing industry here. Now, in the capital city of Kigali, people of all ages flock to the Inema Arts Center every day, not just to gaze at the gorilla but to admire hundreds of pieces in the gallery. Many are eager to learn to paint and sculpt, and to experience the healing power of creativity.

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The colorful exterior of the Inema Arts Center.

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“If you come on Thursdays, you’ll see 400 people lining up, just excited to be in this  creative space,’’ said Lauren Nkuranga, Emmanuel’s wife. She sees a symbiotic relationship between inventiveness and advancement, watching art generate all kinds of enthusiasm from both tourists and native Rwandans alike. “I see hope. I see development. I see positive results,” she said.  

 

The community’s creative metamorphosis began with Emmanuel Nkuranga, who became interested in art around 2002 and started showing his work internationally in 2010. He was amazed by the response at his first international show in Sweden, where people praised his colors and wanted to know where he was from. 

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Emmanuel Nkuranga in front of one of his own paintings.

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“Rwanda was known at the time as a country that had massive atrocities,” he said. “So, it was actually really cool for an international audience to see something vibrant coming through.” 

 

After that, Nkuranga decided that he wanted to be an ambassador for Rwanda’s artistry. 

He launched the center in 2012 and quickly discovered that it allowed people to see the country in a different dimension, no longer as essentially a “dark society.” 

 

While tourists admire the gallery space, the locals want to cultivate their creative sides.  Nkuranga often focuses on training Rwandan youth. He started a program called Art With A Mission, first teaching art to orphans so he could help traumatized youth develop creative skills. When orphanages were recently abolished, his students wanted to keep learning. That motivated Nkuranga even more, convincing him that teaching was his calling. 

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Paintings that orphan children created through the Inema Art Center’s Art With A Mission program.

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Nkuranga’s ultimate goal was to turn some of these children into the next generation of internationally successful Rwandan artists. But just as important, he wanted to instill these kids with confidence. “The combination of developing talent and selling art as a kid, that gives you so much hope,” he said. “Art and our center have brought energy to these kids.” 

Other local art centers focus on different altruistic goals. Talking Through Art employs disabled women to make baskets. The non governmental organization was founded by Petr Kocnar, who came to Rwanda as a tourist from the Czech Republic. He befriended some women begging on the streets during his first visit, and invited them to paint with him. Before long, he created the new group. 

 

“In Rwandan culture, to have a disability is a taboo that people try to hide,” he said. “I felt really sad for them.” 

 

He focused on weaving, encouraging women to create baskets that are popular with tourists. Unlike other baskets found in the sprawling markets, these are more colorful and more intricate than traditional ones. They are so popular that Talking Through Art is now a sustainable organization. “Now, these women are independent, confident, and making enough money.” 

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Stacks of vibrant baskets for sale at Talking Through Art.

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Tourists have helped turn art into a profitable industry. They love perusing Rwandan baskets and paintings and talking to artists about their work. Now, art is one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions. In fact, on Trip Advisor, the Inema Arts Center ranks as the second most popular site in the entire country. 

While art generates income, it also serves the community. The Niyo Arts Center, for instance, donates 40% of its profits to the Niyo Foundation, which works with children living on Rwanda’s streets. “Niyo now supports 105 children from the streets, taking care of their health and education and making sure that they have food and shelter,” said Pacifique Niyonsenga, the center’s founder. 

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The sign that welcomes visitors to the Niyo Art Gallery.

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The center also has a women’s program, which helps the mothers of street children support themselves by making clothing as well as crafts. The goal: to improve these mothers’ lives until they’re able to once again care for their children. 

 

“It’s a community center, an arts center, and an everybody center,” Niyonsenga said.   

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The NIYO Art Gallery also features multimedia artwork, such as these sculptures.

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He was inspired to create the foundation and center because of his difficult childhood, spent living on the streets during the genocide. “I was two years old when the genocide of Rwanda started,” he said. Niyonsenga was from a Tutsi family, where everybody thought they’d be killed, he said. In fact, 75% of the entire Tutsi population was murdered during the genocide where 800,000 perished.

By age six, Niyonsenga lived in the streets without food, clothing, or education. He always thought that if he could get out of this difficult life, he would help other people. Eventually, he was adopted by a Canadian family and discovered art, which is why he now gives back to his community through artwork. 

 

The Niyo Foundation seems to be fulfilling its mission. Cyrusa Olivier, one of the first children to join Niyo after its founding in 2012, now teaches traditional Rwandan dance, travels the world to perform, and studies business at one of Rwanda’s universities. The center encouraged him to pursue a business degree, and he’s looking forward to contributing to the Niyo arts community in the future as much as he can. 

 

All these centers continuously build camaraderie and community. At Talking Through Art, everyone eats lunch together every day, dining on vegetables grown in the organization’s garden. The nonprofit also provides its members with family planning, reproductive health education, English classes, and yoga. 

 

It also pays for the children of these disabled women to go to school.

 

“We always say that disability is not inability,” Kocnar said. 

 

Learning how to make art helps with healing and reconciliation, Nkuranga said. “We train the young ones how to view the world positively.” Teaching, he explained, “gives me hope that they can use these skills to fulfill their potential.” He teaches sketching, painting, and color theory to children before they learn about mixed media. Given that the language has no words for several colors and that children get no art instruction in school, Nkuranga said he needs to start with the basics. Many don’t even know that yellow and red make orange, he said. 

 

These kids have no idea what color can do, explained Lauren Nkuranga, his wife and a Yale graduate who now runs a food distribution startup in Rwanda. “He takes them from having the color skills of a kindergartner and brings them to become actual artists.”

 

Only after they learn the basics does Emmanuel Nkuranga let them run wild with color. By letting them feel free and express themselves, they have found their styles and their definitions of creative expression, he said. He has been astounded by some of the student’s creativity, describing how one boy used grass to add texture his painting. It was an idea that Nkuranga had never considered. “They continue wanting to learn and I learn from them too,” he said.  

 

Learning how to make art also helps people understand themselves, Niyonsenga noted. People need more than education to be successful, he said. “You need to create, you need to be creative.” Kids need to go to school because that’s the basic foundation of success, he said.  But creativity will actually allow them to think more independently. This more all-encompassing education lets kids dream big about their futures, rather than accept the difficulties of their current lives. 

 

Art helps people grow their minds differently, Kocnar said. “It’s not mathematics.” Art is about ideas, rather than answers, and allowing people to see the world in more expansive ways. For those with physical disabilities, there is yet another advantage. Women who make baskets at Talking Through Art have discovered that the weaving process helps them exercise muscles and practice dexterity. 

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A display of baskets at Talking Through Art.

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As these centers gain popularity in Rwanda, their founders keep trying to make the art sector even more vibrant. Nkuranga is working on his plan to open Rwanda’s first modern art museum. Niyonsenga has just purchased land to build his Niyo Children’s Village, where children on the streets can live, study, play, and feel at home. Kocnar is starting a project to make 20 woven masterpieces that represent different facets of Rwanda for an international tour. One basket features an elephant in one of the country’s most famous national parks.

 

But all of these artistic entrepreneurs have even more hopes and dreams. “My wish is to get more income for the women,” Kocnar said. ”Once I get that I’ll be really proud.” 

 

In less than two decades, the country has already created an art scene that brings the community lot of pride as well as joy. The Inema Art Center’s seven-foot gorilla and myriad other creative projects throughout the country demonstrate that art is helping change the trajectory of this tiny nation. 

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Sara Lewis is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College studying Computer Science. She can be contacted at sara.lewis@yale.edu.