The ‘Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now’ exhibition highlights Rwanda’s new era of development
“You have to go and see Rwanda. Put it as your number one when visiting Africa. It’s up and coming, it’s exciting – it’s like a land reborn.”
This is how photographer Andrew Esiebo reiterates his message to me, already imprinted in my mind from the photos I’d just seen in the next room. His character is as colourful and warm as the pictures he presents of the ‘Returnees’.
Whether intentionally or not, the curators have picked their launch timing well. The throes of spring in London are dotted, almost accidently, with spots of sunshine, and are more relevant to the message of this project than any other season. This is the Rwanda of renewal. Of construction. Of bloom. Of stylish entrepreneurship. Of women. Of rubble upon rubble.
The Returnees are bold and beautiful characters, the children of refugees and political exiles who arrived in Rwanda around 1994 “kicking and screaming” in the arms of their parents, entering with vast expectations and settling down with different discoveries altogether. They include high-end fashion designers, choreographers, DJs and filmmakers, and their photographs are full of bright lights and daring patterns.
But just on the adjacent wall we’re introduced to families from enduringly poor areas of North-Western Rwanda, images drained from all colour, as if a painter has intervened by brushing across the photos with grey-brown mud. We are acquainted with the modest interior or their homes, dark and sparing, and eyes which tell of their enforced continuity in this environment.
Photographer Mussa Uwitonze demonstrates, however, that with neglect and tragedy comes hope. His insightful journey into the Imbabzi orphanage – where he was raised himself after losing his parents in Congo just after the genocide – shows a backdrop of steep slums and alleys and a variation of expressions, from natural smiles caught off guard to teenagers troubled with the slow internalisation of the reality of their position. This, after all, is a country whose history has burdened its children with the premature role of looking after the household.
Similarly driven by the personal experience of losing his niece to a traffic accident, Cyril Ndegeya takes pictures of road incidents strewn with heat and the rush of people forming clusters around the object of disaster. He uses his photos to campaign for better road systems, alongside his work for the East African newspaper group which publishes Rwanda Today.
Just as the photographs focus on people, they also focus on raw materials and objects found in factories and markets. We are faced with plenty of metal in the Gakinjiro workshop in Kigali, scattered toys in the Imbabzi orphanage, and CDs and plastics in Rwanda’s products for sale lining the streets. This is coupled with the familiar surfacing of a globalised society, one which we witness seeping out of the narratives of other developing countries, including images of barber shops with African American icons plastered on the walls, placing a global African identity within Rwanda’s popular culture.
The exhibition succeeds in presenting Rwanda’s fresh new chapter. But although it aims to extricate the view of Rwanda as a country of war and pain, it is almost entirely dependent on this depiction. As Linda Melvern states in her book Conspiracy to Murder: “In the years between 1959 and 1994 the idea of genocide, although never officially recognised, became a part of life.” Filmmaker Eric Kabera says that he arrived in Rwanda “in the white heat of the aftermath of the genocide” where the whole country “smelled of death”. From the ashes comes life – but ashes there are plenty.
Rwanda is making more progress towards the Millennium Development Goals than any other African country. But the next part of this chapter is yet to tell us if “life now” will be different for those in dire need or whether the economic boom will disproportionately benefit the Kigali elite, thereby widening the gap between the nature of the urban and rural challenges that Rwanda is facing. While the country is making huge leaps forward, as demonstrated by this exhibition, it continues to repair the damage and relieve the scars of the past.
‘Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now’ runs until Wednesday 30 April 2014 in the Inigo Rooms, King’s College London, Somerset House East Wing, Strand Campus. It is open daily, 12 noon – 6pm (until 8pm on Thursdays). Free admission. Exhibition presented by the Cultural Institute at King’s College London.
Photo Credits: Andrew Esiebo (featured) and Jean Bizimana (body)
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