“Artists Bring In Life And New Ideas” – Inside Kigali’s Booming Creative Scene
I’m peering out of my taxi window, watching as red motorbikes weave through the ebb and flow of traffic and a backdrop of lush green hills roll past. I’ve just landed in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. It’s a vibrant city of contrasts, from the storefronts trimmed with the country’s traditional geometric imigongo designs, to the super-modern $300million beehive-shaped convention centre, illuminated at night in the national colours of blue, yellow and green.
But I notice something strikingly absent. There’s no trash, anywhere. It’s even more obvious to me after leaving New York’s sullied streets the day before. Not only has Kigali been named the cleanest city in Africa, for its lack of rubbish on the streets and its green initiatives, it is also ranked the safest city on the continent due its low crime rate. Though it is only about half the size of Switzerland, in 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world to have a parliament with a female majority. It has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa right now and is on its way to becoming ‘Africa’s Silicon Valley’, with the 2023 opening of Norrsken House Kigali, Africa’s largest tech incubator hub designed to accommodate over 1,000 entrepreneurs.
“It’s an exciting time for Rwanda,” says Emmanuel Nkuranga, a Kigali-based artist and entrepreneur. “Everything works, everything makes sense, everything is paid attention to, everything is loved.”
Art plays an important role in the moment Kigali is having right now. “You can’t have an innovative country when people are not creative,” says Nkuranga. “Artists bring in life and new ideas.” His Choose Kigali art space opened in 2019, and includes several gallery floors showcasing a rotating collection of contemporary African art, in addition to his personal collection.
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Along with his brother, fellow self-taught painter Innocent Nkurunziza (there are six brothers total, all artists), Nkuranga co-founded another arts-focused space in Kigali: the Inema Arts Center, the largest of its kind in Rwanda, in 2012. Ten artists in residence showcase their work here at a time, while mentors work with emerging artists to transform their creativity into sustainable income, as well as teaching local children painting, ceramics, sewing and more.
Nkuranga began his painting and mixed‐media art in 2002 as a form of therapy after his mother’s death. Grief is something that Rwanda as a country is collectively, deeply familiar with. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 took around 800,000 lives, resulting in about 78% of country’s current population being under 35 years old. To understand what’s happening in Rwanda today, you must know what happened here in the country’s not-too-distant past. Start with a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which services as both a museum and a mass burial site for 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi. Guided tours of the exhibits and gardens are offered, but many visitors, myself included, opt to walk through it alone to silently reflect on the memorials.
Drawing on the past to reimagine the future is key to Nkuranga’s art. He used reclaimed materials, such as bicycle chains and gears to make the mountain gorilla sculptures on show at Choose Kigali. He has made life-size gorillas from old computer parts, and his latest ape sculptures are full of raw amethyst gemstones. These sculptures honour the country’s famed mountain gorillas, wildlife that play an important part in Rwanda’s rising economy.
Everything is paid attention to here; what’s left behind and what can be made anew.
7 Ways To Explore More Arts And Culture In Kigali…
- Shop… at Rwanda Clothing, House of Tayo – whose designs were worn to the Black Panther Hollywood premiere by Peter Junior Nyong’o as he accompanied his sister Lupita Nyong’o on the red carpet – and Moshions for elegant luxury apparel that echoes the visual heritage of Africa.
- Eat… at Meza Malonga, the restaurant helmed by Congo-Brazzaville culinary pioneer Dieuveil Malonga, who visited 48 African countries to shape his mission to lead a new fine-dining Afro-fusion movement on the continent.
- See… the work of rising artists in Rwanda at Niyo Arts Center, which hosts 17 local artists in residence, and frequent drumming and dance performances.
- Support… Nyamirambo Women’s Center, which provides education and vocational training for women through its product line Umutima, which includes home and childrenswear. It employs women as seamstresses – along with women from various other cooperatives, who contribute their weaving talents – and all profits fund the centre’s initiatives, including literacy classes and workshops on women’s rights and health.
- Create… your own art at Azizi Life, where artisans lead workshops in the Rwandan artform of imigongo, traditionally painted with cow dung.
- Stay… at Heaven and The Retreat, two sister boutique hotels featuring over 100 paintings by 20 artists.
- Listen… to one of the fast-rising women music artists in Rwanda, Kaya Byinshii, for the perfect soundtrack to your trip.