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Collin Sekajugo is an African visual artist who identifies himself as a Rwandan Ugandan. Having grown up in an intense Ugandan society, he has a strong belief in the role of art in social transformation, and has now exhibited his work around the world. When he’s not working on his own portfolio, he also contributes to efforts to increase the visibility of modern art from his homeland. This led him to establish the Ivuka Arts Center, galvanizing a community around art. Our interview with Collin reveals an artist on his way to fulfilling his dream of changing society.
Tell us about the first moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
It was right after finishing high school during my long vacation when I started practicing portraiture. At the time, nearly every art gallery I knew was somewhere in the streets of downtown Nairobi. So I used to run into art being displayed in the windows of various galleries. This intrigued me a lot.
You say that the message you wish to convey is one of a ‘demonstration for social transformation.’ Tell us a little more about why you think this is so important, and what you hope to achieve? Has this message always been integral to your artwork?
I grew up seeing extreme poverty being the norm in most neighborhoods that were inhabited by regular Ugandans or Kenyans. And dependence on well-to-do families in terms of decision-making for community leadership or transformation gave me so many questions. I found art to be a perfect form of free expression for me. I have always had a strong desire to share knowledge and ideas with those who are underprivileged or disadvantaged.
Losing my mother at age 13 and my father at age 16 put me in situation where I had to choose between being a beggar or starting to carve out my own life. This is when I started dreaming of becoming someone in society, someone who would educate and feed myself while also contributing to the social economic development of my community. I sought refuge in art.
Gradually I developed a strong conviction that art is great tool for social transformation. My dream to Use Art To Change Lives, and when I started this mission in 2007 after opening Ivuka Arts Kigali, this ultimately became my lifestyle. Whether through painting, art installation, or performance art, my work subjects are always centered around people, community, and transformation.
We’d love to hear more about your mission for boda-boda safety?
Over the years there have been emerging concerns about the safety of these riders, as most of them caused countless accidents, and the operators didn’t wear safety helmets until recently when most countries enacted laws to help to regulate this silent killer business.
I started running safety awareness campaigns through drawing, painting, and public art performances in Kampala and Nairobi more than two years ago. Then came the problem of convincing the general public to wear crash helmets, and women – especially younger girls – complained about sharing helmets besides worrying about their beautifully crafted hairstyles.
I quickly came up with an idea of personalizing helmets as a way of enticing commuters because in Uganda especially, fashion is such a big deal. So I quickly thought about making the helmet more appealing and as fashionable as I could based on who would buy it. Ultimately we started purchasing motorcycle helmets from local importers and doing makeovers on them.
Today the helmet thing is not only encouraging conversations on the art scenes of Kampala, Nairobi, and Kigali, but it also has created jobs for the youth from different neighborhoods whom we recruit to decorate the helmets based on my prototypes.
I am doing a one-month Artist Residency program at Spread Art in Detroit, where I was accepted and given an opportunity to develop my “Art For Safety” concept.
You have spoken against ethnocentrism in the past. Tell us a bit about where you were born, where you’ve travelled, and where you are living now. Are all these places important to your identity and to your artwork?
I was born in Masaka, central Uganda. This probably one of if not the most mixed societies in Uganda; here, there are people from as far as Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and other parts of Uganda.
When I was a little child, I overheard many people referring to me as Muyindi (Indian) or Musomali (Somali) mainly because of my curly hair and the Afro that I used to wear. This made me ask myself so many questions that would later lead me to try and search for my real origins; later I learned of my mother’s Rwandan roots and my father’s probable Tanzanian connections.
You always come across some challenges as you try to associate with people who are so fixated on their original cultures. You only start realizing this a lot after you grow up, and a lot of people tend to identify others based on their tribal lines.
Art does bring people together, as this is the very strategy that I used to found the first Visual Art Center in Rwanda, where the youth seemed to be striving for unity and a sense of belonging in society.
All this history means a lot me as a person and as a professional artist. And while today I live and work both in Kigali and Kampala, I consider both places as home. I always identify myself as a Rwandan Ugandan visual artist.
You have worked with lots of different mediums, from painting to installations. Have you always experimented, or have you learned new processes along the way? And do you have a favorite medium?
My artwork ranges from paintings, sculpture, art installations, and performances although my main forms of practice are painting and mixed media. I have always experimented with materials and newly self-created styles. I consider my artwork as semi-realism/semi-abstract.
Tell us about Ivuka Arts in Kigali and Weaver Bird Arts Community in Uganda. When did you found them and how have they enriched life in Kigali and Uganda since then?
I founded Ivuka Arts Kigali in 2007, and then later I founded Weaver Bird Arts Community in 2011. Weaver Bird’s idea was born out of inspirations that I attained from my frequent travels around the world. And when I first attended LEAF International (Lake Eden Arts Festival) in Asheville (North Carolina) in 2010 as a Rwandan guest artist, my idea of creating a community for the arts in East Africa was born. My vision was to turn my father’s home village in Masaka into the first of its kind, an arts destination in Uganda.
This mission started when I launched the first Arts Camp in Uganda, where I mobilized a group of creatives plus their groupies from Kampala and Kigali and came to Masaka with a main objective of breaking away from routine studio work or urban settings, instead camping out to meet and mingle with new people while sharing ideas.
From that day on art camps became a quarterly event in Masaka, which later attracted artists from Kenya and Tanzania plus expatriates from Kampala.
Later in late 2011 I purchased the land where we camped, and immediately I started developing it into a sculpture park with standard camping facilities. In no time, the influx of visitors started growing, and various people started moving into the village to establish new development-related initiatives.
In the real sense it’s the art camps that shaped development in this village, as our events involve art workshops, marathons, a cycling race, and music performances, all done by both locals and visitors.
Recently in May 2015, we (Camp Ndegeya) were privileged to host nearly 100 marathoners from Europe and a couple from Australia and US who ran a marathon in Masaka to raise money for different charities. The marathoners ran workshops, and their medical team of 16 ran medical workshops at the local health center and regional hospitals while treating patients for free and donating medicines. It was a week of fun and community development.
Two of the marathoners have returned to Masaka and have teamed up with a local artist in Ndegeya (the arts community) to create an afterschool skill development center for the local youth.
Have you had any artistic disappointments in your career? If so, how did you fight them?
As it’s said, nothing comes easy and no rewards can come without sacrifice. Besides a complete lack of funding, I have come across multiple hurdles that included fake friends, cynicism coming from my own people or some art competitors, and cheats in the village. This made my work extremely difficult, in that I have had to sacrifice almost everything that I made including money and time in making this dream become a reality. While I could play the blame game with anyone at this point, I was only disappointed in my own self for putting all my work first, before my now four-year-old son, and for not being able to identify my personal weaknesses. I am more grown up now, and I think that maturity brings wisdom with it. I am now able to create a balance between work and play – plus identify with different personalities without stumbling.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future? Are you working on any particular projects?
After the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. accepted a donation of my artwork from an American philanthropist Chas Wood in 2012, I would like to see more of my work in more museums around the world. Perhaps this would help to create a more visible presence of Rwandan/Ugandan art in the international halls of fame.
I always wish my piece that was purchased by renowned comedian Chris Rock in 2006 from the famous Gallery Watatu, Nairobi was well documented; sadly I lost its JPEG image. Or I wish the world could see what my biggest collector, San Francisco’s top socialite Pamela Joyner (Harvard MBA, pun-intended), has purchased from me in the past! Over ten large paintings within a space of three years.
My main aim here is not show off, but give recognition to some artistic talent from Rwanda, a country barely known for art.
What is the best piece of creative advice you have ever received? Who was it from?
A Swiss-based Ghanian gallerist and art scout called Osei Kofi once told me that controversy can only befall those that are good at what they are doing (not his own words). And he said that if I was afraid of controversy, I wouldn’t make a step forward.
Henry Miller wrote 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it’. Do you have a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to create?
I am only learning of Henry Miller from you, but I really love his theory. It resonates so well with my travel routines. I don’t usually consider my destination’s art scene, as I believe that every place in the world has its special surprises. I can’t stop having my Cuban nostalgia. I would have never thought that of the over 30 countries I have visited in the world, Cuba would become my best trip ever!
If you had to have only one, which artwork would you hang in your living room?
I am a random person, and this is also applicable to the way I create or work. I have no specific routine. If my parents were still alive I would have taken a good photo of them and painted it. That would be the most perfect painting on my wall.
The best gallery or museum for art lovers in Rwanda?
Even though I don’t consider any place in Rwanda as a proper art gallery, I think that Inema Arts Center is the most attractive one at the moment. I am sure many people love the Inema space given its size and strategic location.
If you could sit down and have a meal with one artist/designer/musician in the world, who would it be and why?
Isn’t Erykah Badu a perfect living art piece? Her sense of style, boldness, and the impact that she has made on the international creative scene makes her stand out as the truest artists I have ever learned of.
What are you reading or watching at the moment?
I am a terrible reader, but I am currently reading Almost French by Australian journalist/columnist Sarah Turnbull. Such an warm and insightful piece of work! It makes me want to visit Paris again and explore French culture more.
What’s the best kept secret of Rwanda?
Rwanda’s best kept secret is the traditional sound from Inanga (Rwanda’s traditional guitar). If you watched Sofie Nzayisenga playing the acoustic Inanga, you would probably discover a new gem in Rwanda.