Art on the Road / Inema Art Center in Kigali by Bob Wood
Please go here to access Mr. Woods’ and Angelina’s Uganda / Rwanda 2015 Summer Travel series.
Tracking gorillas is all the rage now-a-days, for American travelers in East Africa. And you know after talking with some folks who did it, treking through the jungle and up to a clan hideaway in hills of Uganda, it sounded pretty wild. But with park entry fees, guide fees, gorilla fees, banana fees and every other fee imaginable – it cost em each over $1200 – for a one hour visit!
I’d rather buy art….
There’s something cool about buying Art in a foreign country. I’ve never collected Art in the United States; I don’t even shop, except for resale. But Art on the road is fun. It provides an insight to the place and people who you are visiting. It lasts longer than a gorilla visit. Usually in the third world – good artwork is relatively inexpensive. For somebody who has a skill, that if they lived in the West could maneuver that talent into a solid career and who is trying to make ends meet, you help them to make ends meet. Plus, artists are an interesting group…they think outside of the box – they’re creative – they’re almost always politically liberal – and have something interesting to say about the world. They bring a fresh air perspective to travel. I like helping them out!
I do however, have a few rules about purchasing artwork. One – I have to meet the artist. I want to be able to put a person and his or her life together with the artwork. I’d like to know the story if there is one, about the piece and the author. Two – Big is always better. Again – BIG IS ALWAYS BETTER. I remember years ago when I was in Istanbul, my first stab at artwork on the road and there was this gorgeous painting, blue and gold and orange, of three swirling Sufis; the colors were wild. The thing was huge. It was expensive; too much at the time I thought, so I bought a pleasant little painting (same style, same colors, same artist) of a mosque. Whenever I view that nice little mosque all I think of are the dancing sufis. Crud. I vowed never again in the art world to go small. Three – somehow, someway the creation has to be able to reach the states in one piece. Whether that is in a plastic tube stuffed into my backpack or via Fed Ex from Kigali for a million dollars – I have to be relatively sure that my purchase will make it home alive. And finally number Four – while I love wood carvings and cloth work and all of the creative mixes that people’s talents can come up with – for me – travel art is painting. And so it is that every time I leave this country I try to find a painting that is unique, that reminds of the people and the places I have visited, and the artist with whom I’ve interacted with.
My favorite art experience was a couple years ago in Grahmstown South Africa. I was traveling with a bunch of teachers on a National Endowment for the Humanities. Grahmstown is the sight of the second largest Art Festival in the world. The festival is an amazing eleven days of – dance, song, instrumental music, theatre, jazz, cabaret, stand up comedy, short film and feature film, and street art from guys on the side of the road. We met a couple of guys on the side of the road. A pair of brothers from Congo, who had a studio in Cape Town spent the week that we were in attendance living in a tent on the grass at the side of the street in the middle of all of their paintings. They couldn’t afford the entry fee to officially participate in the Festival, so they slept with their work. Each day they pulled out their wares for show; every night they bed down with tarps and the paintings. In between they sold their stuff. We spent a lot of time talking with the brothers, eating pizza with the brothers, even had a couple of beers with the brothers. We stopped by every night to see how they were doing. I liked those guys. I liked their attitude; I liked their stuff. It was colorful, bright, and simple. Zulu warriors and zulu women for home. Elephants and Zebras and Giraffes for the classroom. These were some talented hard working guys…just trying to make ends meet.
In Uganda and in Rwanda you find a ton of great art. But often, it’s at a tourist craft market. And while the works are surely interesting, you don’t have any idea in the world who or what or where they were painted. Because a lot of people like to know the artists, Kigali sports emerging Art Houses. Groups of artists get together, live together, pool their resources and their talent, and create kind of a Art Hive. They advertise their place to the hotel, hostel, and online review scene, and provide a destination for tourists like me and Angelina who were looking for neat things to do. And of course BIG pieces of art to buy.
The Inema Art Center is such a place. It’s just plain groovy. A couple of floors of gallery, meander about of a brightly painted establishment. Artists live on premises. A women’s cooperative sells handmade jewelry and three times a week traditional dance performances are on tap. With a new Internet café in the works, a creative garden flanked by “flower power” painted Volkswagon bugs, jazz and blues drifting through the gallery, and the chance to visit with the artists, you’d think you were strolling the Village in NYC.
Inema was founded by Emmanuel and Innocence– two of a handful of brothers – who are at the core of the place. All of the artists, about a dozen, are Rwandan, with the exception of one Ugandan (Emmanuel admitted, “we really like his work”). It was the Ugandan that painted the giant Ugandan woman with the shifty eyes, my art purchase. They have a studio out back that is used not only for artists in residence but to nurture the talents of local school children. The guys work with the kids and try to bring out the creativity roaming the streets; those paintings are available for sale as well. In addition, a satellite gallery adjacent to Heaven restaurant near the French Embassy, stays open late into the evening. That’s where Angelina found her giant Orange Elephant painting. The word is out. Inema Art Center is rated #2 of sites to see while Kigali on Trip Advisor. These guys know what they are doing; and it will only get better with time.
While the gardens are alluring and its always a treat to meander through mural painted Volkswagon bugs anywhere on the planet, and the art and the coffee and the music add to the mystique, the best part of Inema is the brothers. Emmanuel is the face of the outfit. He’s hip…dreds, sun glasses, and style. He’s so cool I was a bit uncomfortable around him at first – thinking I wasn’t cool enough. And it wasn’t just me; Angelina felt inadequate as well. It was like we were talking reggae with Bob Marley. Anyhow I did an interview. Angelina video taped; I try to put these interviews together for my Economics class, so students have an insight to small business in the third world. Emmanuel and I talked about the place, about art, the new coffee shop and the challenges of bringing this kind of business to Kigali. A lot of what we discussed, has been a challenge for all of Rwanda since the genocide. And the New York Times did a great job with the issue, and featured the Inema Art Center among others in a 2014 article. You can find that story here.
That night we met up with Emmanuel and his brothers Timothy and Joseph back at Heaven at the satellite gallery. Jens, our German water engineer friend from the Iris came along. Angelina sealed the deal on her giant orange elephant, I got my Uganda woman with the shifty eyes, and we headed over to the Hotel des Mille Collines for jazz and gin. That’s Hotel Rwanda by the way…and the music was superb. Chicago blues and cool jazz; a band of nine supremely talented artists.
And that friends is how art enhances your on the road experience. Good music, great artwork, a fascinating destination, drinks, music, conversation – with a couple of Rwandan artists, Bob Marley, and an interesting German water engineer, listening to jazz on a Tuesday night at the Hotel Rwanda. Beats the hell out of $1200 to drop in and say “Hi” to the gorillas.