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Rwanda's Number 1 Art Ambassador

Rwanda's Number 1 Art Ambassador

Beatrice Spadacini (December 28, 2009)

This article has appeared on The East African Magazine, Week of 26 December 2009


by Beatrice M. Spadacini

It is hardly a surprise to learn that one of Pascal Bushayija’s paintings hangs in the office of the country’s president.

His work conveys all there is to love about Rwanda: its people, coffee, music, dancing, playing Igisoro — a traditional game — and sharing drinks in plump gourds, a symbol of wealth.

Women are often at the core of his paintings, gently holding a peace basket in their hands or swinging their hips as they dance to the rhythm of the drum, giving life to the canvas.

The warmth that emanates from Bushayija’s mixed media paintings is reassuring and welcoming.

His work seeks to reframe the narrative of the country, which is still struggling to shake off the stigma of the 1994 genocide. At the age of 52, Bushayija is Rwanda’s informal art ambassador and the most established artist in the country.Dozens of young trainees swirl around him in an attempt to emulate his style and to follow in his footsteps.

“I never thought I could live off my art,” says Bushayija, during the interview at the Kigali Serena Hotel, surrounded by several of his colourful paintings decorating the dining area of this high-end hotel.

As a young boy growing up in Nyundo, in the western Rwanda near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bushayija’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a medical doctor, a more professional and lucrative career.

But Bushayija followed his heart and enrolled in the fine art school established by Belgian priests in the town of Giseny. After studying for six years, he became a professor and taught art in the same school for a period of 11 years.

Then in 1994 all hell broke loose. Bushayija witnessed the genocide first hand and vowed to use his art as a weapon of peace, to restore hope in his people and to heal their soul.

“My work aims to bring people back to normality. I have always liked to depict positive scenes ever since I started drawing in primary school,” he says. “In my paintings I focus on themes like reconciliation, tolerance, sharing, making music together and caring for one another.”

He normally starts a painting by sketching a few curved lines.

“I like to stand in front of the canvas, without knowing what I intend to do, holding my pencil. A lot depends on my emotional state, on how I am feeling at the moment,” he says.

Some of his largest paintings have been commissioned by Bourbon coffee and are now displayed in downtown Kigali and at the international airport.

His artwork will also decorate the newly opened Bourbon Coffee in Washington DC.

In 2000, while attending a workshop in France, Bushayija met Togolese artist Kossi Assous who influenced his technique and introduced him to the use of other materials, giving his paintings a tactile feel that is both alluring and penetrating.

“Thanks to Kossi, I realised I could use whatever was abundant in my own environment to give depth and texture to my paintings. I now work with millet, sawdust, sand, wood bark, coffee beans and beads,” he says.

One of the materials he is most fond of using comes from the Umuvuvu tree, a plant that is abundant in Central Africa.

Once glued on the canvas, the thin reddish bark provides texture as well as warmth.

“Before the arrival of colonialism this material was used by Rwandan women to cover themselves,” he explains.

While at the start of his career Bushayija painted landscapes, now he prefers figurative art.

In recent years he has moved towards more abstract subjects, which are popular among foreigners.

“My African brothers prefer to buy paintings that reflect our culture and values,” he says, adding that his compatriots need to be further sensitised to art. “Rwandans are not used to hang paintings on their walls but they can learn to appreciate art by being exposed to it.”

Besides being a renowned painter, Bushayija is also a musician who enjoys playing the guitar.


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