Finding Art in Rwanda

Since arriving in Rwanda I have encountered several people who are curious and/or confused as to why I am interested in art here. I have even come across people who question whether Rwanda is a creative place at all – as if such a statement can be made about an entire population. Rwanda has a rich tradition of music and dance, and a history of using traditional creative practices to solve community problems. Contemporary art, however, faces unique challenges in Rwanda's current sociopolitical environment. The Rwandan government hardly nurtures creativity; professions that fuel economic growth and development are privileged. In many ways, art, especially contemporary art, is conceived of as marginal in comparison to Rwanda’s more pressing social and economic problems. Several theatre practitioners I know are studying to work in business, agriculture, or economics – with a lack of public support for the arts, it is nearly impossible to make a living as an artist. And when art is talked about, it is often folded into a discussion about economic development. Art as cultural development – art that is income generating or tourism-promoting, such as traditional music and dance – has value beyond simply manifesting Rwandan creativity and generating new, original work. However prevalent these views may be, they do not fully represent the realities of artistic life in Rwanda. Of course there are artists here, and they are working in vibrant ways. Nor does a focus on economic development necessitate a rejection of all things creative. Rather, artists in Rwanda seek to understand how they can find space in Rwandan society, in ways that preserve artistic integrity as well as address important issues and attract an audience. In my time here I have come to know several artistic organizations that strive to serve multiple purposes – to educate, to create revelatory work, and to generate income and function self-sufficiently. The Ishyo Arts Center hosts workshops and conferences, offers rehearsal space, boasts a bar and restaurant, and serves as a home for multiple theatre and dance companies. As gathering audiences (that are not composed entirely of expats) for theatre and contemporary dance performances has proved challenging, Ishyo has also created monthly comedy nights and acoustic music nights which showcase the talents of young Rwandese and draw consistently large crowds. Ishyo’s hope is that once people know about the center, they will be inclined to explore its range of offerings and perhaps attend something unexpected. The Kwetu Film Institute (kwetufilminstitute.com) in Kigali is also attempting to address Rwanda’s need for new, young artistic production and cultural expression. Tonight is the opening night of the Rwanda Film Festival, which showcases Rwandese and international feature length and short films at a variety of locations in Kigali over the next week. Eric Kabera, organizer of the festival and founder of the film institute, wants to ensure that film is not a privilege only enjoyed in Kigali; last week, he took the film festival all over the country and held screenings in rural areas. Kabera is highly concerned with audience – and Rwandese-driven artistic production – but it will be interesting to see the demographics of the festival attendees in Kigali this coming week. These are just two of the organizations with whom I’ve been working. As Rwanda rebuilds, artistic development, social issues, economic development can, and must, go hand in hand. Encouraging creative thinking will benefit every element of society, from politics to agriculture. And many Rwandans recognize that art can serve as a sort of mirror through which societal issues are refracted in illuminating ways. Pressing everyday problems, and economic growth, may continue to take precedence in the eyes of the government for the time being; however, as these issues are addressed creativity can simultaneously be valued as a life-giving, life-sustaining substance. With time, it becomes clear that cultural expression – and new cultural production – is crucial as Rwanda explores pathways of development, as well as constructs and reconstructs an artistic identity for the 21st century.