Nkurunziza uses art to help heal and grow
The story of how local artist Innocent Nkurunziza ended up in Wilmington for his first American solo exhibition truly stands as a testament to the power of blind chance. It begins earlier in the year when Wilmington film producer Beth Crookham, who was spending some time in her in Rwanda, discovered an art collective just down the hill from her hotel.
Through the collective, Crookham met Nkurunziza and instantly fell in love with his work. Though his paintings have made it to American soil on several occasions, the artist had never had the opportunity to travel to Uncle Sam’s land himself. To give him that chance, Crookham submitted an application for Nkurunziza to be awarded a part of the Artist-in-Resident project at UNCW’s Boseman Gallery. He was accepted.
The result is “Rwanda Shares,” a Boseman Gallery exhibition featuring Nkurunziza’s paintings and, ultimately, a tribute to the artist’s homeland. Through his work, Nkurunziza depicts Rwanda not only as a country, but also as a home and nurturer. Using mixed medias, he blends vibrant colours with an abstract-impressionistic style and captures symbolic moments throughout his journey as an artist.
Born and raised in Uganda, Nkurunziza and his family moved to Gahini, Kayonza District, Eastern Province, when he was 11. In 2001, two life-changing events – one tragic and one inspirational –occurred: Nkurunziza’s mother passed away from a heart attack, but at this very fragile time in the artist’s life, an unlikely encounter would bridge his pain with art and begin a new chapter.
George Hicks, a professor from the University of Cambridge, had just come to Rwanda to teach an art workshop for children, which Nkurunziza attended. Hicks’ three-month long class began with about 80 children, but, after the second month, Nkurunziza was the only one left. During the workshop, Nkurunziza learned critical skills that would later influence his most significant work – lessons on mixing colors, studies of light and darkness and how to create watercolors, landscapes and still-lifes.
Now in his mid-20s, Nkurunziza’s art has long been popular in Rwanda. Today, with his first American solo exhibition in tow, he is ready to make his mark on the international art scene.
Nkurunziza spoke to encore, an American website, about his current exhibition, his time abroad and journey. Excerpts below:
What is the inspiration behind Rwanda Shares?
Things of Rwanda that I portray in my artwork to foreign viewers is [the concept of] the “Mother Rwanda,” the country as a place and a parent, by blending examinations of its natural environment of its present and past. I am mostly inspired by smiling faces of people, patterns of colors, textures within my world—[these] are the bases from which my art is derived.
Tell me about your experience in the U.S.
My first trip to the U.S. was in September. It is an extraordinary country and first with lots of competition ranging from small business, big firms and corporation, wide art industry, technology, good schools, health care and talented people—to mention but a few. The entire package brings innovations, critical thinking, and this leads to excellence. Everything is exciting at the moment, [and] there is a diversity of different cultures that gives me comfort more than any places I have ever been.
When did you become interested in painting as a continuous passion?
I started when I was 8, drawing murals in charcoal on people’s houses. [Later] I experimented lots with a wide range of art materials, burning crayons to make paint. I tried to be innovative despite the fact that I had no art education or facilities, which led to a self-taught process. I worked hard and still do.
Art has always been a refuge in my self-expression, healing in times of depression—a result of losing my dear mom at an early stage of my childhood development. Art played a big role in facing and overcoming challenges. [It] brought me hope and happiness, which I carry on in my day-to-day life experiences. Plus, it has become a healing tool to my life, art lovers, friends, clients—nationwide and worldwide—and a source of income generating activity to myself and my poor community. My passion and devotion for art will continue to grow as long as I am living; I will continue to work hard to inspire and teach the younger generation.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned during your journey?
I have been inspired by sharing experiences with different artists in Wilmington and people of different backgrounds. A lesson as a visual artist is [to have] “a strong commitment to the creative life.”
Did you ever imagine that your art would take you around the world and gain recognition?
Absolutely, yes. I am confident that I will keep working hard. My vision is to take my art to the next level in many countries and the world at large.
Rwanda Shares shows through October 25th at the Ann Flack Boseman Gallery, located on the second floor of the Fisher University Union at UNCW. The gallery is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.
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