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Rwandan history channelled through art

Four Rwandan artists are eager to share their work as a "mirror of how we see the world." Holly Gordon speaks to Bill Ruterana and Jean Yves Masengo before their opening.


When Rwandan artists Bill "Coco" Ruterana and Jean Yves Masengo sit down to talk about their work, it takes only minutes for Masengo to start finishing Ruterana's sentences, and Ruterana to finish Masengo's. The two men met almost 15 years ago, just after the Rwandan genocide.

"Artists in Rwanda, you can count them on two hands," says Masengo of working artists in the country, explaining that there are so few of them that they have all met or worked together.

Ruterana and Masengo, both now living in France, are in Halifax this week for the launch of their art show 4 Rwanda at FRED. The curator is Halifax artist Kevin Lewis, who met the pair while working on the film Shake Hands with the Devil in 2007. With the help of Fred Connors (of FRED) and Lewis, Ruterana and Masengo were able to fly over for the show. Artists Antonio Nshimiyimana and Theogene Kabalisa, who are living in Rwanda, were also meant to fly here but the Canadian embassy refused their visas. (Their work is still part of the exhibition.)

Ruterana wants to make something clear before continuing to talk about his work. Slipping from French to English---and back again---he says there are subjects he and Masengo can speak on, and some they can't. The Rwandan genocide inevitably influences their work, but they don't want to discuss it.

"It's a political problem," says Masengo.

"And we are just artists," finishes Ruterana.

Having said that, Masengo's newest work speaks to life surrounding the genocide. He's brought six panels of a graphic novel for the show, depicting the story of Rwandan characters in hues of brown, green and red. The characters' expressions are inked in such vivid detail that the empty speech bubbles almost don't need to be filled. (Masengo fills the bubbles last and hasn't finished that step on these panels.) This is the first book of what Masengo hopes will be five or six in a series, ending with the Rwandan characters' present-day lives. It's been a thought process of almost 12 years, with the last year-and-a-half devoted to the novel's production.

"It's like being pregnant and then, after, showing my kids to my friends," says Masengo. He's looking forward to communicating with locals about his art, and watching their reaction to what he presents.

Ruterana is of the same mind, with different materials. While he has been tagged a fashion designer over the years, he doesn't consider himself one.

"For me, it's not a kind of art or fashion I'm doing, it's just a language. I think that the human body is like a frame that exhibits my paintings," he explains.

A painter by practice, Ruterana experiments with different materials, using the human body's movement to express his vision. Much of his work uses umugwegwe, a sisal-like plant that grows in Rwanda. Not all Ruterana's materials are organic---and Masengo quickly points out Ruterana probably rejects more materials than he keeps---but that's not Ruterana's concern.

His work "is like burning a precise instant in history," he says. Ruterana continues, saying we are all witnesses to history, and he's using his work to mark it. He wants people to feel his history by experiencing his art, and wishes others to do the same.

"It's like in the mirror," adds Masengo. "To take you in the mirror of how we see the world. That instant of stopping and the seconds looking---it's very important for us."

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