07 March 2015

Rwanda: Art in a post-genocide society

by Marc Masurovsky

By all accounts, there is no reason why artistic activity should have even found a haven in a society where half of the minority Tutsi population was hacked, stabbed, impaled, shot, sexually assaulted, enslaved, raped and otherwise martyred by Hutu extremists more than 20 years ago.

Rwanda is a nation whose post-genocide population is afflicted by collective post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of the worst kind, something that is not cured by heavy doses of synthetic drugs which would serve as mere palliatives. As one cynical researcher observed who is very familiar with Rwanda, if you suffer from PTSD, Rwanda will make you feel like you are normal.

View of Kigali
If anything, the process of creating a work of art, an object of art, either two dimensional or three-dimensional, might be viewed more as a therapeutic exercise aimed at exorcising the demons of a genocidal enterprise anchored in neighborhood kinship ties.

And yet…Rwanda has emerged from its own version of hell on earth to become a society desperate to thrive and to show its best side to itself and the world.

Detail, Ivuka Arts Center, Kigali
One example of that miraculous turnabout are the artistic outputs produced largely by self-taught painters and sculptors. As some of these artists have indicated, at the very beginning of this creative process, there was no artistic activity to speak of in Rwanda. Nothing. Nada. But at the onset of the 21st century, several arts centers like Ivuka and then Inema emerged in Kigali from the aftershock of the genocide. They operated as havens of expression, free expression for those who desired it. Mostly, the children came, those who lost everything, their parents, their siblings, their friends, their relatives, their neighbors. With no one to turn to, some of these children found solace in the idea of daubing paint on a canvas and allowing their scarred minds to free up some of the light buried deep inside, that shimmer which contained their innocence and their identity as independent beings striving for a place in the world, a cruel one at that, who once played and imagined.
Ivuka Arts Studio, Kigali
Detail from a child's painting, Inema Art Center, Kigali
Group painting at Inema Art Center, Kigali
Bit by bit, canvas after canvas, these children have grown up feeling a bit less shackled to their past and looking forward to learn, discover and think about a future free of machetes, spears, and other sordid implements of torture, defacement, and death. Their palette has shifted from dark browns, greens and grey, to more vibrant colors, sometimes expressionist without knowing what that means.

Detail, Ivuka Arts Center, Kigali

Many of today's artists in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, the locus of Rwanda's art scene, have tapped their inner beings for inspiration and have not sought inspiration outside the borders of their nation.

Let's not forget the surviving Tutsi women of Rwanda who were enslaved sometimes for weeks on end, abused, tortured, raped, violated, and who somehow were able to make it out of the abyss in which they had been cast simply for being Tutsi (a number of Hutu women suffered equally because of their kinship ties to Tutsis).

Their recovery has been nothing short of unbelievable. But one has to credit a massive collective effort engineered by the leadership of post-1994 Rwanda to bring about stability and self-respect in all the communities that make up this small country surrounded by self-interested nations which have only profited from the turmoil exacerbated by the former colonial powers that controlled at one time or another Rwanda, namely Germany, Belgium, and France.

The surviving Tutsi women and their daughters are deeply scarred, in such a way that one can wonder if they can fully function. But Rwanda’s miracle is to have produced an environment in which they can find themselves again despite the pain of having to know that their torturers live not too far from them.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s pay a special tribute to the women of Rwanda, to their resilience, to their internal beauty of mind and spirit, for having had the courage and strength to help keep alive and tightly woven the fabric of Rwandan civil society.