Kigali, Rwanda is not a place that would immediately conjure notions of conceptual and modern art for most people. The opposite, in fact, may be true, because so much of what the western world is exposed to stereotypical arts and crafts such as masks, contour paintings of wildlife and lore, and other classically “African” works. There is little doubt that for many of us, the two words “African” and “art”, taken in order, create some kind of image likely involving a wooden medium bright color palette and/or deconstructed wildlife or people.
It’s because of this somewhat restricted sense of the artistry of Sub-Saharan Africa, especially, that the wild and unrestrained creations of the Inema Art Collective are a highly unexpected and exciting occurrence in the African art world. This small collective, formed in 2012, represents a vanguard of creative expression of Rwanda.
Formed by two self-taught brothers, Innocent and Emmanuel, the space they have carved out in Kigali is beautifully out of step with the feel of the city. Kigali is clean, streamlined, well-organized and planned. As one comes around the corner of a strange split-level house, painted dilapidated cars-as-art are parked as permanent fixtures near the wildly multi-colored side of the house.
The order of Kigali gives way to an exuberant and positively-charged chaos and excitement. Strange bits of metal and glass adorn corners of a courtyard, waiting to make the transition from garbage to art. This is one theme that is present in many artists’ works: repurposing, (or upcycling as we know in the United States) waste and trash into works of art.
Inside, where the artists keep their pieces, one can wander around and quickly get a sense of the movement of the direction art has taken in Rwanda, or at least this corner of it. Pieces share a haphazard tonality, bright colors, and a distinct level of playfulness and modernity. There is very little in the way of darkness, intentional obfuscation, or despair.
The tone is warm and inviting. This quality is further informed by the character of the artists in residence. The ten artists share a desire to positively effect change, to be agents of growth, and to bolster community practices. A small cafe operates in the courtyard and there are regularly-held workshops at the center in visual arts, and in dance as well.
Inema and other similar art collectives represent a very stark movement away from widely-accepted norms about what “African” art is, despite the fact that the continent is as varied as any part of the world. Much in the same way that visual art in Hawaii is often relegated to the components that one associates with island life, (surfboards, dolphins, etc), many African nations get somewhat boxed-in in terms of artistic freedom. This gives rise to a host of other issues as well.
Because in many parts of Africa, craftsmen and artists have no way to really protect their designs, many of them have been co-opted by Chinese manufacturers, with no recourse. What this means in practice requires a certain level of patience and scrutiny to go home with a piece of art created by a local, and not from an assembly line across the world.
Groups like Inema represent a clear push away from the standard notions of traditional art into a more modern, individualistic approach in Rwanda. Traditional and modern approaches to art should always exist side-by-side, and right now, this collective is making progress to raise awareness about a different kind of Africa.