Collin Sekajugo is an East African artist who was resident at the Jiwar centre for six weeks in collaboration with the Africa Centre. Founder of the first arts centre in Rwanda, Ivuka, and fighting for social change and community safety in Uganda, Collin spoke to us about his work, his art and his two homes – Rwanda and Uganda.

Interviwed by Nicky Armstrong

-1                       Collin in his studio in Jiwar

 

Rwanda, the tip-toe of sadness, people walking around each other desperately trying to find a way to communicate, trying to understand how they fit into society after the work of hatred and genocide has torn apart their two cultures. The space between them is vulnerable. Yet, move across the border to Uganda where corruption is the day’s norm – the disintegration of rules, people on their own path, going about their business with little regard for anybody else – community safety is brushed aside like leftovers on a plate.

Rwanda and Uganda have their own stories, memories, problems and successes. Textured layering, colours on found materials, wild painted faces each with their own agenda; story and personality rapidly driving their moped to their next destination, the sad figure of a changed refugee once beautiful as she walks into Europe, broken, tired, overwhelmed and sinking. Collin’s paintings visualise the cracks in our societies and his wide criss-crossed white brush strokes found in all his paintings represent the bandages of social conscious and healing. It is art about social transformation, community, the movement of people and the flow of cultures across borders.

 

After your first visit to see relatives in Rwanda in 2001 you decided to start working there as an artist moving back and forth between Uganda. What did you see in Rwanda that made you want to work there?

During those frequent visits I started seeing the gap between the arts and creative sector. Rwanda was struggling to re-build itself, it was moving on from a very difficult past and for me personally, even though I was still young, I thought the creative sector had a big role to play in terms of bringing together the young people and resolving conflict among the youth.

I found that everyone was sad, I saw so many sad faces in Rwanda on the streets, and everyone was struggling, trying to relate to each other. Personally, I had my own past, I’d lost my parents at a young age, so I was trying to figure myself out and see what I could do to become something. I kind of related to them very quickly even though their stories were very tragic and mine was natural we fell into this similar category.

I was already trying to pave my own way, cover my own life and I was very confident that art was going to help me become what I wanted to become in terms of expressing myself, in terms of sharing my ideas with my people and maybe the rest if the world. So I thought that art could be a very good tool to bring the country together and help the healing process.

 

You were born in Uganda and raised in Kenya. Where did your relationship with art start?

It is something that I grew up with; I grew up drawing, even though the schools that we went to didn’t have proper supplies for kids.

Uganda already had some budding artists, and Kenya was the centre where all the resources were based, so all the artists were moving from neighbouring countries that were going through political instability to Nairobi, which is like the commercial capital of East Africa. Given the concentration of resources it was inevitable that you were going to run into art exhibitions on the streets. It was all there. So I grew up seeing all that. It was very intriguing for me; it was very fascinating, I think that’s where this whole interest of making art and linking it to a profession came from.

 

Through your portraiture you were able to commission some pieces and pay for your education. You then decided to move to Cape Town and study Tourism. How did this change you as an artist?

I ended up studying the real travel geography, you know, tourism travel in general. But my main interest was learning about cultures, moving from place to place and learning about new things, seeking inspirations. And that really fell into things very well given that my future was to later open a space where tourists could come through and see what Rwandan young talents were doing – that was the vision at that time.

Then I had to put it into realisation, which meant that I had to save money. So in 2006 I went back to Rwanda and I had a bit of money and at the beginning of 2007 I opened the first arts space in Kigali, it’s called Ivuka.

 

Could you describe the Ivuka arts centre and what it has given the community?

The space is two buildings, which are open as a gallery space where we can do art performances, showcase art work on the walls and artists, whoever wants to come through to learn new skills – they have a space to create anything.

When I opened this space I invited six guys I had worked with before to help them hone their skills. And also, more importantly, help them learn how to live together without conflict; they are from very different backgrounds. It was the corner stone for youth empowerment in that community and at the same time bringing art to the community.

The space was an environment that influenced togetherness, sharing and also progress and development, because everyone you know was happy, people’s mind-sets changed. If people thought, OK I can’t live with so and so because of different ethnic backgrounds, no, they couldn’t think of that because they were here as a family under the same roof, eating at the same plate and the same table. It was amazing. That’s why, if you go through my story I’ve always used the statement – using art to change lives. So art has really changed lives in Rwanda over the years since I opened this space.

 

You have a big piece here in your studio at Jiwar – paintings of individual faces all wearing helmets. What is this piece about?

I’m still working on this piece. I have called it the ‘National Safety Council’, because there has not been any form of regulatory council for road traffic safety in Uganda. And seriously, safety, oh my gosh. You might not feel it because you might be distracted by everything else, the good things, because its beautiful, but it’s very difficult to not notice the recklessness that’s there. I don’t know how I’m going to convince, or suggest that our government comes up with a committee that is responsible for national safety.

So these painted faces are different attitudes – you can see we have the older people, the younger people, the women then men, everyone, different sizes.

If you look, most of my work has that kind of white thing around them, and it symbolises a bandage. Because for me, my work generally, whether it is painting or social activism, is mainly about emancipation and healing. The healing because we are always grieving in one way or another so the bandage is what I use as the healing symbol in my works.

 

What place does art have in development in Africa?

I’ve had to sacrifice everything I’ve made from art. It’s a privilege to showcase my work around the world, which is an amazing thing, but all the proceeds came back, whatever I made out of it I bought it back to Rwanda to develop the centre and the communities I work in. Every single resource I had in my hands I could share with these people, it made a very big difference, and that is art giving back to society here.

I have a title to my mission “Art to Change Lives”; I have a strong conviction that art can become a tool for change. Everyone in this world has the potential to get somewhere if they are given something, it doesn’t need to be a big thing, but something to get them started.

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