By Joseph Oindo
Benjamin Rusagara vividly remembers his first foray into art as if it was yesterday. It was during his primary school’s lunch break when students were rushing out to have their lunch and one of them accidentally dropped a book that was full off illustrations and cartoons.
“While other students were rushing out when the bell rung for lunch and one of them dropped his art book, it was me who picked it, marveled at the great art work and started copying what the artist was doing. He didn’t write his name at the cover of the book, so I came to possess this book,” he says.
Now a resident artist at Ivuka Arts Center in suburban Kacyiru, the 27-year-old self taught artist says, with a smile on his face, that the particular book inducted him into the world of art – it made him decide that art was going to be his profession.
Today, at the Ivuka Arts Center where he practices his art, his work now touches on social motif. A 50x50cm abstract acrylic on canvas is titled People Walking Side by Side. This is a rich abstract piece that touches on African socialism.
It shows two people walking on opposite directions but at that precise moment, they meet and shake hands. The artist says that “African culture brings together social, spiritual and moral activities. There’s something unique in an African blood that always vibrates, that you should always be your brother’s keeper, unlike western life where individualism has taken over the heart and soul of humanity,” explains the artist.
He further says that when we are portraying arts, we portray ourselves. This reminded me of the age-old debate whether art imitates life or life imitates life.
Another 50x75cm abstract titled Celebrating Banana is just that informative, brilliant and prodigious piece of art that can find home on the walls of any gallery of the world. Banana here is not only portrayed as a source of food, but also as a symbol of social cohesion.
For example, banana is normally presented during important social occasions like wedding ceremonies. Banana is also one of the ingredients used in making traditional beers like Urwagwa (Rwanda) and Waragi (Uganda). The end product of the banana is that it’s nature’s gift for our social life.
The artist further explains that there are more uses of banana plant like stripping its bark to make banana paper that has several uses like making lampshades.
“We therefore should celebrate banana since it plays an integral part in our lives and that’s why, through this art piece, I wanted to show how this ‘innocent’ plant is important to our daily lives.”
Urban Citizenship is a 50×65 abstract painting that clearly depicts Kigali’s normal urban life and landscape and its unique architecture. Rwanda normally goes by the sobriquet of a Land of Thousand Hills. In this painting, divided into two halves by a road, the first half shows a typical busy urban bus park, where there are many vehicles parked body-to-body like sardines. The other half is painted the normal construction architectural buildings in a archetypal Kigali suburban.
This is a provocative piece, to say the least. “Why do we always build our houses on top of the other because of the hills while there is enough flat land we can construct our buildings?” muses the artist. “What happens when nature decides to strike and we have earthquakes and landslides? It means we are going to lose our lives, with one building rolling over the other,” he says.
But the artist, who signs his name as Ben Wong Shi, is not only an abstract painter but also a deft sculptor. I was thrilled when I saw his miniature sculpture, resting atop a wooden structure, of an athlete running towards the future.
The installation piece is made of wires and aluminum sheets. He explains that the main message he wanted to bring with this installation piece is that, “We should always forget our past and sprint towards the future.”