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Imigongo Art and Stories From Rural Africa

Imigongo Art and Stories From Rural Africa

The aroma of brewed coffee was in the air. Baskets, ceramics, sculptures and other made-in-Rwanda items were on display alongside packaged coffee for sale.

It was ten minutes before my scheduled appointment with Charles Ashimwe, the co-founder of Imigongo Art Center, located in Mukarange Sector, Kayonza District. As the rendezvous approached, I sipped some coffee and took a closer look at a variety of artifacts hanging on the walls.

Putting my host’s busy schedule into consideration, I intended to make the meeting as short as possible. However, I ended up prolonging our conversation in a bid to grasp the rationale behind his vision.

Imigongo Art Center is a social enterprise established to foster creativity, create jobs and transform lives. The facility encompasses a coffee shop, studio and art gallery. The Workforce Development Authority (WDA) runs an apprenticeship program under the same roof. WDA is a public institutional framework structured to fill the skills gap across all sectors of the Rwandan economy.

When I was done with Charles, I approached Dolph Kayinkore, an artist plying his craft at the center. Dolph was busy painting a rhino. His inspiration came from the role wild animals play in attracting tourists, who in turn, buy his paintings. The number of tourists visiting the neighboring Akagera National Park is increasing.

It has been ten years since Dolph started painting for a living. He worked in different art centers around the country before settling in Kayonza where his vocation is gaining momentum. His colleague, Bonfils Ngabonziza was painting his client’s portrait when I poked my nose into his business. Like Dolph, he had stints in different art centers elsewhere before taking his talent to the Eastern Province. His label can be seen on different paintings displayed at Ivuka Art Center, Niyo Art Center and Morocco’s Association Arkane Casablanca.

There was a third artist who was deeply immersed in his work. I resisted the temptation to talk to him because I didn’t want to interrupt his flow of ideas. The three of them collaborate under the umbrella of Rural African Art, an initiative closely linked to Imigongo Art Center.

Four other artists, including two women, were creating imigongo products on the other side of the gallery. Imigongo artisans create frames on which patterns are drawn. The sketches are then developed into pronounced geometrical features. Materials used are cow dung, ash and glue. After a bit of polishing, a layer of paint is added to the mix. Their creative work requires specialized skills and attention to detail.

Imigongo art originates from an area formerly known as Gisaka in present-day Kirehe District, Eastern Province. It was invented by Prince Kakira in the 18th Century. Over the years, the art evolved to suit the advanced needs of modern designers and architects.

Traditionally, cows are prized possessions, symbolizing wealth. In today’s cash-driven economy, cattle ownership continues to upgrade standards of living. Beef and dairy products are sought after consumables. Horns, hoofs and hides are highly demanded raw materials in the rapidly growing manufacturing industry. Apart from occupying a prestigious position in the Rwandan culture, cows open up multiple streams of income for farmers.

Communities have been using cow dung as manure for a very long time. Lately, what could easily be discarded as waste has become a source of biogas and electricity. Imigongo entrepreneurs, on the other hand, use it to fabricate decorative pieces of art and preserve their cultural heritage. Through imigongo experience, visitors who opt to spend a day with the artists learn how to make their own imigongo items. It is a great opportunity to acquire new skills, empower members of the host community and earn precious, self-made souvenirs.

I took a walk around the gallery and studied a collection of artists’ impressions. Paintings of vendors selling commodities in the market, children running to school with backpacks strapped around their shoulders, birds spreading their wings and flying over lakes, elephants wandering in the jungle and so much more.

When we see a new billboard on our way to work, our brains perform a split-second process of absorbing a cluster of components and filtering the message it’s meant to convey. To figure out what a painting communicates, we need to slow down that process and avoid jumping to snap conclusions.

To be honest, I still struggle to decode meanings of complex artworks. Sometimes, even simple illustrations raise more questions than answers. While in the gallery, I looked at the women carrying jerrycans and wondered, "Is the painter addressing lack of running water in their households? Is he showcasing the spirit of working together? Could it be both? Am I missing a broader context here?"

I looked at the combination of color and texture. I observed the juxtaposition of objects. Furthermore, I mused over shadows, shapes and dimensions. I paid attention to little details and gradually started getting into the minds of artists.

The brain behind the establishment of Imigongo Art Center believes in the power of art as a mind stimulant. Art triggers our creative acumen and divergent thinking, thus boosting our overall productivity.

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