An Unexpected Art Capital
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Art is therapeutic. And this city has much to recover from.
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For newcomers, Kigali, Rwanda, seems nice … but boring. The traffic is smooth, the sidewalks are so clean that you could eat off them and there’s Wi-Fi on public buses. But when it comes to entertainment, the so-called Singapore of Africa has nothing on Bujumbura’s music scene or Kampala’s vibrant nightlife.
Yet the capital of the tiny landlocked country does have one ace up its sleeve: a thriving contemporary art scene. This is thanks to more than half a dozen galleries determined to groom local artists and showcase Rwanda’s creative side — by organizing all sorts of cultural events, from book launches and hip-hop concerts to live painting classes. Which often surprises even those who have already visited Rwanda. After all, most tourists who venture into this mountainous land are interested only in going to watch the gorillas. Alex Lacoste, a 29-year-old American biomedical informatician, says she was “pleasantly surprised” when traveling through the city on her way up to an ape safari, calling the art “a great window into the collective spirit” of the country.
For the party types, Inema Gallery hosts cocktail hours, and for the downward-doggers, Yego Art Studio offers yoga classes.
While small, Kigali’s art scene has something for everyone. Connoisseurs will likely want to head to Ivuka, the oldest gallery in town, which has been open for a decade. It’s easy to spot because the adjacent streets are covered in bright art murals and makeshift sculptures. Another popular studio is Uburanga, two large buildings packed with art and flanked by a sculpture garden. Some galleries also do double duty; for the party types, Inema Gallery regularly hosts cocktail hours, and for the downward-doggers, Yego Art Studio offers yoga classes in the evenings. As for the art, styles and prices vary widely: from a few bucks for some handmade jewelry to a few hundred dollars for an original painting by a local artist. The young Hortance Kamikazy combines paint, wood and collage to create textured, living-looking paintings, and Willy Karekezi’s colorful acrylic pieces, some of which have been commissioned by Starbucks in Europe, feature traditional scenes.
Of course, Kigali is still the capital of a developing country — don’t go expecting Paris-level infrastructure. I learned that the embarrassing way when I walked into an art vernissage where people looked at paintings by candlelight and emphatically praised the “original choice of lighting.” My host burst out laughing and whispered, “It’s a power cut.” Kigali’s art scene is also one of the rare spaces in Rwanda where locals and muzungus (white people) mingle. That’s because it’s not designed to lure tourists; it’s focused on empowering and serving the local community. Most art studios provide after-school activities, educational workshops and avenues for other local artists, musicians and writers to showcase their work.
Art galleries also make for a cool accommodation choice if you want to avoid prohibitive luxury hotels and cockroach-friendly guesthouses. Many offer rooms: Some are listed on Airbnb and, for about $25 a night, can help you get a closer look at how the city is reinventing itself after what happened in 1994. To be sure, the genocide left the country scarred demographically, economically and emotionally, and the signs of the tragedy are still visible today. But the art and artists may be a way to transmute that pain into possibility. As the sign welcoming visitors to Uburanga art studio reads, “Art heals people.”