On a back street in central Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the Ivuka Arts Centre shows the work of 14 artists. Jean-Baptiste Mpungirehe showed the gallery/workshop to Stephen Williams.
It was perhaps not the ideal day to visit the Ivuka Arts Centre in the central Kigali’s residential district of Kaciyru, as the centre was getting itself prepared for a major exhibition at the US Embassy in the city the next day.
But with the unfailing good grace and politeness that I had grown accustomed to during my stay in this East African capital, Jean-Baptiste Mpungirehe broke off from what he was doing that day to show me around the small townhouse that now serves as the centre for 14 artists who work and show their art there.
Ivuka’s founder is the artist Collin Sekajugo, who was born in Uganda and raised in Kenya, and has made community activism his forte, setting up Saturday art classes at three orphanages in Kigali, and creating a music and dance troupe for disadvantaged children called RwaMakondera.
He opened the Ivuka Arts Centre in 2007 (Ivuka means in Kinyarwanda “to be born”), and it has received considerable international recognition in the intervening years.
Not only has Kigali’s diplomatic community bought into the whole idea of the Ivuka Centre (such as the US Embassy staging an exhibition of the centre’s work), but the departure lounge at Kigali’s international airport has pieces on show, in order to catch the eye of the international passengers that pass by. International exposure was also increased when the Charlie Dutton Gallery in London exhibited a show in 2011, titled “Rwanda,” featuring eight Ivuka Arts artists.
As the gallery itself said: “Artwork can empower Rwandans to cross their own frontiers into an international dialogue and cultural exchange, while inviting others to understand the broader landscape of the newest member of the Commonwealth.”
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009. Sekajugo’s approach to developing arts to serve the community has been replicated by several other artists who, having begun their artistic careers at Ivuka, have gone on to set up galleries and art centres in Kigali of their own – including the Inema Arts Centre, Bwiza Arts Kigali and Uburanga Arts. These all owe a debt of gratitude to Ivuka for Sekajugo blazing a trail that they followed.
Today, the Ivuka Arts Centre is a sea of creativity. On display are a large number of paintings and sculptures; so many paintings in fact that many are just stacked on the floor, leaning against the walls. Viewers and prospective buyers are invited to look through them and select what they would like to see in particular. The styles tend to be abstract and exuberant, although some have a more figurative inclination. In general, the colours are bright and uninhibited.
The house is too small to show the major sculptures indoors, so the surrounding concrete terraces serve that purpose. Beginning with a giant flask-like sculpture that greets the visitor on arriving at the house, made from recycled glass bottles and concrete, inside the centre the three dimensional works are mainly made of wire frames and “found” materials.