These Rwandan Artists Are Driving a New Generation of Change

Courtesy of Philippe Nyirimihigo - IG: @starp
Courtesy of Philippe Nyirimihigo – IG: @starp

Rwanda’s creative golden age is upon us — here are the artists that are ready to take the world by storm.

By Alexander-Julian Gibbson

Updated: June 15, 2019

From filmmakers in Nigeria to fashion designers in Senegal, Africa’s creative scene is bursting at the seams. And Rwanda, whose inspiring postwar transformation has ushered in a new wave of inventiveness, has a global influence that cannot be denied.

A quarter of a century has passed since the East African nation was torn apart by genocide. But from the depths of tragedy, the country has risen, becoming an international beacon of hope and progressivism. In the parliament, for example, women hold more than half the seats — the largest share of any country. And in 2016, the country made headlines when it became the first to deliver essential medical supplies via drone. Rwanda was also one of the first countries to ban plastic bags, and its ambitious climate plan will transform the nation into a climate-resilient and low-carbon economy by 2050.

Now, Rwanda’s creative class is finding its footing — though not without considerable strain. For one, this young generation of artists has been burdened with the profound responsibility of defining Rwandan art. This carving out a new identity necessitates confronting the past, reckoning with hard truths about the country’s history and mourning those lives and legacies lost. It also requires re-learning the traditions and techniques that formed Rwanda’s artistic bedrock—no easy feat, given that 79 percent of the country’s population is under 35. Then there’s the larger, more historically sweeping fight that unites most, if not all, African artists: to change the Western hemisphere’s attitudes and perceptions about the continent, which have largely revolved around the sad and familiar narratives of conflict, poverty, and trauma.

So what is the picture of Rwanda that this new generation is painting? And how are these young talents building a creative community from the ground-up? To find out, I hit the streets of the capital city Kigali in search of the creatives that are writing the country’s next chapter.

Linda Mukangoga: “I’m the designer behind ethical fashion brand Haute Baso and a member of Collective RW, an organization that was founded in 2015 to promote a dynamic creative sector in Rwanda. The government has been hugely supportive. Through Made-in-Rwanda initiatives like the matching grant program and the Export Growth Fund, which helps local businesses export their products to international markets, we’ve really been able to find our stride.”

Matthew Rugambar (right): “I’m the founder and creative director of House of Tayo, a brand centered on contemporary, locally-made clothes and accessories. In Rwanda, there’s this old belief that creatives are the people who failed school and couldn’t get a conventional job. To fight these perceptions we’ve formed groups like Collective RW that have given us strength in numbers and allowed us to push our agendas.”

Elvis Ngabo: “I’ve been dancing since I was 7 or 8 years old. My parents told me it was not possible to support myself as a professional dancer in this country. They told me it would be hard to pursue my dream. But social media has given me a platform to reach a wider audience.”

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