In October 2017, the intersection between art, conservation, and state-sponsored graffiti made headlines in Kigali and around Rwanda.
ROA, an internationally acclaimed and semi-anonymous street artist with a passion for animal conservation, visited Rwanda for what should be remembered as one of the most interesting artistic collaborations in recent years. This project saw Rwanda continue its rich tradition of environmental conservation through public art, in a unique move for one of East Africa’s most fascinating countries.
Conservation is not an act unfamiliar to Rwanda. This small, landlocked nation is known for its many public environmental measures, including a country-wide plastic bag ban in 2008, as well as impressive animal conservation work for gorillas, lions, rhinos, and many other indigenous species. As Rwanda continues to make its mark on the environmental world, the recent collaboration between Rwandan creatives and Belgian street artist ROA has the region talking.
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Considered one of the most important and influential mural artists of our time, ROA is known for creating massive black-and-white paintings of animals. ROA’s work examines the relationship between man and the environment, and has been featured in prominent galleries and museums around the world. In an effort to promote environmental conservation through art-based activism, ROA visited Rwanda to create five large-scale public murals depicting animals indigenous to the country.
Stopping in their tracks, onlookers gathered to gawk at the 15-metre-high (50-foot) mural of the almost mythical Okapi in downtown Kigali. The Okapi, an animal once native to Rwanda and known as the African unicorn, is an endangered relative to the giraffe. These graceful creatures still live in the Democratic Republic of Congo and right on the Rwandan border, but have not been seen in Rwanda for many years. Motorcycles slowed down as they drove by, and crowds surrounded ROA’s newest canvas in awe.
Just a few days prior to the artistic return of the Okapi to Rwanda, ROA painted three panels in the Musanze region to be permanently displayed at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters in Kinigi. These panels featured the sunbird of Nyungwe National Park, the mountain gorilla of Volcanoes National Park, and the rhinoceros of Akagera National Park, and were immediately beloved by park rangers and visiting tourists alike. ROA’s final mural in Rwanda was created in the lively Nyamirambo neighbourhood of Kigali, and featured the endangered elephant shrew.
This two-week project – led by public-art-oriented and Rwandan social enterprise Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga and supported by the Rwanda Development Board, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium, Goethe Institut Kigali, Rwanda Mountain Tea, Brussels Airlines, and Rwanda Arts Initiative – was an undeniable success. Kaine, the founder and director of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, in an interview with The East African, stated ‘these murals will provoke conversations about the animals, and awareness of them, and hopefully of their value to us all’.
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