A Fine Line: Rwandan Genocide through the art of Foreigners and the Healing Process

Over the last week I have tried to find as many sources regarding Rwandan art as I could.  What became apparent was the lack of information and exposure of art in Rwanda.  In fact the only real website that I came across was that of  Ivuka  Arts Kigali.  After reading through an article in the UTNE Reader which stated that many of the artists at this arts organization did not create works that addressed the genocide of 1994.  I began to wonder if there were artists who spoke on these experiences of horror, sadness, and perhaps healing.  The Katzen Art Museum at American University has a current exhibition,   Convergence: New Art From Lebanon, in which many artists create works that comment on the experiences of living in a war-torn country.  Is the same true for Rwandan artists?

What I found were many articles regarding art exhibitions whose subject matter dealt with the genocide but whose artists were in fact foreigners.  In October 2004 the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery hosted Making Sense which featured works by British Artist Helen Wilson who had visited Rwanda in 2002 (Culture24).

UConn’s Contemporary Art Gallery held and exhibition that ended in April of this year on the Rwandan Genocide.  This exhibition featured the work of International artist Alfredo Jaar (a native Chilean) and a 3 channel video installation memorializing the event.  As an artist his mission is to reveal the increased desensitization to images and events of genocide.

These bring up the questions, How much can a foreigner really understand the experience of survivors?  and Why are Rwandan artists not the ones whose art is being exhibited in regards to these events?  What is our responsibility as an art community to ensure that we accurately represent the emotions and experiences of people who have lived through atrocities such as these?  Is it our responsibility to foster environments of healing through the arts by encouraging these artists to process their experiences via their mediums?  or should we just leave it alone?  So many questions.  Most of which I do not have the answers for.  I do however believe in the healing power of the arts, and their ability to allow individuals a space to negotiate their experiences.

There have been many movements to bring the arts to Rwanda as a way to foster healing. Barefoot Artists, the vision of Lily Yeh, was developed to “bring transformative power of the art to the most impoverished communities in the world” In 2005 Barefoot created the “Rwanda Healing Project” developed 2 major art projects in the hopes of helping the community in Gisenyi, Rwanda to move forward; The Survivors Village Transformation and the Genocide Memorial Park.

In 2004 The School of Theater at the California Institute for the Arts partnered with Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda and developed a 2 week program whose goal was to “study the genocide and to look at the ways the performing arts can contribute to the process of recovery” Participants in the program visit Rwanda, the people, learn about the genocide so that they might better represent it in their own art.  Through this process the program also hopes to help the Rwandan people find their voice and express their own ideas and experiences.  In 2006 a genocide survivor wrote a play based on her experiences during the program (allAfrica.com).

The Kassandra Arts Project is a new venture that seeks to create a Performing Arts school for children in Rwanda.  I will be interested to see how this project evolves as it seems to be in the early implementation stages.

In conclusion there are many outsiders who have addressed the issues of Rwanda post genocide whether through creative programs or their own art.  Yes we see very little art coming from Rwanda, whether it addresses the genocide or not.  In a country where culture and the arts become a large part of ones being, why do we not see more of it in the international markets?  I hope that in the future we might.

Image Credits: Barefoot Arists barefootartists.org/


3 thoughts on “A Fine Line: Rwandan Genocide through the art of Foreigners and the Healing Process

  1. Hi Brieahn,
    I’ve just come across your blog and realise you posted this last year but wanted to make contact! I am a PhD researcher in London currently looking at how arts practices are being used in Rwanda to engage with the past and construct positive futures. I am also interested in many of the issues you raise here – and I hope my work will help us to learn from Rwandan practitioners about using art in such ways. We do not seem to see much at all from Rwandan artists in Europe (do we not permit the space?) – I suppose the most well-known pieces seem to be theatre, dance or performance based – from groups such as Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts. Have you spent time in Rwanda – I would love to know more about your experiences? Thanks for posting

  2. Dear Brieahn,

    I am Juan, a PhD researcher, from Colombia, and currently based in USA. I am (mostly) interested in (visual) artists (but performers could also work) from or based in Rwanda, who have worked on the violence exerted as well as the healing process. I am interested in a comparative analysis with the Colombian. I wonder if you could share information on this regard. Please contact me.
    Thank you in advance. I look forward to hearing from you soon


    P.S. I will also send this message to the e-mail address you gave to Helen.

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